Lost in the cosmos

Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play existential detectives, whose duties include breaking bad news to hypocritical Christians and self-indulgent dilettantes, in I Heart Huckabees.

Philosophy is funnier than you might think in 'Huckabees'

After I Heart Huckabees, one wonders why philosophy isn't a more common subject for comedy. There are few people more vulnerable to satiric attack than human beings trying to make sense of the universe; there's something endearingly noble about trying to see the big picture, but every attempt is destined for failure.

Huckabees is full of competing worldviews, some more coherent than others but all comically flawed. Wandering among them is Albert Markovski, a tree-hugging crusader who writes poetry and organizes anti-sprawl civil - and, when he's digging up parking lots for tree-planting, not so civil - disobedience. (He's played by Jason Schwartzman, who has finally found a worthy follow-up to his Rushmore debut.)

Intrigued by a series of coincidental meetings with an African immigrant, Albert hires a husband-wife team of "existential detectives" played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman. While the wife spies on Albert in search of the meaning hidden in his mundane routines, the husband coaches him in seeing the interconnectedness of the universe. "There is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity," Bernard claims in his attempt to show that a hamburger, the Eiffel tower, and Albert himself are all part of a single "blanket" of existence.

In between this indoctrination and his encounters with rival philosophies, Albert bonds with Mark Wahlberg's Tommy Corn, the slapstick heart of this very verbal comedy. Tommy, a firefighter obsessed with society's dependence on fossil fuels, compensates for his intellectual shortcomings by being more passionate even than his mentors; the movie's biggest laughs come when Tommy's mental frustration erupts into physical outbursts.

Wahlberg is fantastic. In fact, Huckabees might not work without him. It is as dialogue-driven as any '30s screwball comedy, but its structure doesn't flow as gracefully as those films did. It is built in very discrete chunks, sequences that abandon narrative drive to find the flaws in one or another way of viewing the world. A Ken-and-Barbie couple stand in their kitchen, for instance, defending their shallow existence against Tomlin and Hoffman's scrutiny; Albert's mother gets her comeuppance from a contemptuous French intellectual. In a scathingly funny dinner table scene, Tommy explains that Jesus is "most definitely" angry with a family that sees itself as pious but is actually complicit in the world's evils.

I Heart Huckabees
Dir. David O. Russell; writ. Russell & Jeff Baena; feat. Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law, Naomi Watts (R)
If it flows imperfectly, the movie compensates with brilliant dialogue and a surfeit of on-target ideas. Its characters edge toward enlightenment in an entertaining chaos, like screwball characters fumbling into love.

Director David O. Russell cements his membership in the top ranks of young American filmmakers by taking cues from the Andersons - borrowing Boogie Nights star Wahlberg and the signature sounds of composer Jon Brion from P.T., taking Schwartzman and an exaggerated wardrobe sensibility from Wes. (Costume designer Mark Bridges has worked on all of the former's films, actually, but his work here instead recalls The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore.) Huckabees shares elements with its contemporaries but clearly remains its author's work: it has Three Kings' distrust of authority and the episodic feel of Flirting With Disaster.

A movie where legendary thinkers Sartre and Carl Jung wouldn't be out of place might sound like a daunting choice for weekend entertainment; but it played quite well at a recent preview, where ordinary mortals laughed loudly and often. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to find humor in the mysteries of existence, after all. If you can find the right guide, reality is a riot. •

By John DeFore

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