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'Huckabees', Like Life, Is One Serious Joke

What do the director, Jon Stewart and a Quantum theory doc have in common? Well, why do you exist?

Dorothy Woodend 22 Oct

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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Director David O. Russell likes to swear.

His new film, I Heart Huckabees starts off with a young man named Albert Markovski swearing a blue streak, which in the literal world of O. Russell might very well appear as blue laser beams shooting out of his head. This is an angry young man in an angry young film, but angry in a good way, literate, intelligent, and thoughtful. Perhaps, too thoughtful. In this film, a ton of ideas buzz by at the speed of light: life, sex, quantum physics. Huckabees is philosophizing with slapstick, pratfalls into being and nothingness in a world where people's noses and eyes detach from their home base and float freely in the air. It's a place where you can machete your enemies to bits while your high school English teacher vacuums up the debris. In a word, it's weird.

Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is the head of a coalition called Open Spaces, which seeks to stop urban sprawl. His cause is a patch of trees and swamp that is about to be paved over to make way for a new megastore called Huckabees. His nemesis is Brad Stand (the golden Jude Law), Huckabees' corporate shark who, the moment he stops swimming, sinks to the bottom of despair. Brad's female half is played by Naomi Watts (Dawn Campbell). Together they represent the apotheosis of all that American culture aspires to be: blond, beautiful and blessed with bliss.

But nothing is as it initially seems. Reality is an illusion, doncha know? It takes a while to worm the story out of the film because Albert is hiding things even from himself. When he finds a business card in a borrowed suit jacket, he is set on the path to enlightenment or self-destruction or both. Probably both, because before you can reconstruct you must deconstruct, which is not always a pleasant experience.

Existential gumshoes

In his quest to look beneath the surface of things, Albert hires two existential detectives to solve his existential crisis. Albert is reminiscent of a young Dustin Hoffman, and there's an old Dustin Hoffman right next to him playing Bernard, one half of the team of existential detectives. The other half is his wife Vivian (Lily Tomlin). The dark side of the triangle is supplied by Isabelle Huppert, as Caterine Vauban, a French Nihilist whose business card reads "meaninglessness, cruelty and manipulation". With a taste for back door entry and mud puddle love, she embraces literally the credo that life is crud. So is the universe a warm fuzzy American blanket, or is it a cold wet French mud puddle? Both, all, yes… Huh?

You don't get many clear answers from this film and maybe that's for the better. You are expected to find your own answers. Along the way are many tangled skeins to unweave: celebrity culture, the death of the natural world, youthful angst, female emancipation, pain and suffering, tops and mops. Like the Huckabees of the title, the film is a megamart of ideas. The actors all seem to be having a fine time, especially Mark Wahlberg who plays Tommy Corn, a fireman who has lost his way after "that September thing." With his patchy beard, giant boots and sudden acts of random, violent kindness, Walhberg has reinvented himself and a new comic type. Even Shania Twain shows up to beat on the notion of celebrity culture.

But beneath the clutter, there are some incisive points to be made. When Albert and Tommy are invited for dinner in a typical suburban family home, where they proceed to literally shred conventional thought about petroleum, Jesus Christ, and family values, you don't want to laugh too much in case you miss some of the dialogue -- and yet it is as intensely funny as it is liberating. They are of course, thrown out on their rears. "That was weird," says Tommy and they hop on their bicycles and peddle off to meet their destiny.

Combustible creator

Say what you will about O. Russell -- and many people have; in fact, he seems to be waging at least three different wars at the moment, with Sharon Waxman and the New York Times, Lily Koppel, and George Clooney --  at least he's not afraid to stray from the path. In fact he's not afraid to head off naked and grabbing other people's crotches, according to Sharon Waxman's recent article in the New York Times.

O. Russell likes to keep his film sets potentially combustible, hence the infamous George Clooney head butting incident, which O. Russell denies or in his own words addressed to Clooney: "Shut the fuck up, you lying-ass bitch." Anyone who can head butt Clooney has my vote and Huckabees, like the best comedies, is deadly serious.

O. Russell has been compared to Jon Stewart in a few reviews, and it is this comedic approach to serious matters that is relevant. Both men are angry and funny, and reaching an audience that is in fact hungry to look beneath the surface of things. While Bill O'Reilly is said to be busy being the loofah lovah, Stewart is reaching the masses, says the newest issue of Rolling Stone. "Viewers of late-night comedy programs, especially The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central, are more likely to know the issue positions and backgrounds of presidential candidates than people who do not watch late-night comedy," the survey of more than 19,000 adults concluded. "Thus Stewart can now cite objective data to prove that he, like Walter Cronkite before him, deserves to be known as the most trusted name in TV news."

Which is what allows Stewart to have the ability to dress down other members of the media as he recently did on October 15th on CNN's "Crossfire." The clip has made its way around the world.

Pranksters have a job to do

Stewart's The Daily Show like O. Russell's Huckabees, demonstrates the responsibility of the prankster to make us reassess the world. In an interview with the Village Voice prior to the film's release, O. Russell said: "A Zen monk once told me, 'If you're not laughing, you're not getting it.' These questions are absurd in some respects. Sometimes you cry because of the absurdity. Some people say that you talk about the serious stuff and then you put in comedy to make it go down easier. But no, they're one and the same."

Existentialism is defined as "a philosophical theory which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as free and responsible agent determining their own developments through acts of the will." Which funnily enough bears some resemblance to the latest think in quantum physics : that free will itself, is the very thing that makes stuff real.

What the Bleep Do We Know?, a documentary about the far edges of science and consciousness also uses recent developments in Quantum theory to makes the argument that human perception alters reality. It asks: "How can we continue to see the world as real if the self that is determining it as real is intangible?"

Quantum headache

Or as Huckabees says "How am I not myself?" (repeat ad nauseum). One of the more interesting figures in What the Bleep is Professor/author Amit Goswami, who maintains that consciousness not only changes reality but in essence created it in the first place. In a recent interview Professor Goswami stated: "The current worldview has it that everything is made of matter, and everything can be reduced to the elementary particles of matter, the basic constituents—building blocks—of matter. And cause arises from the interactions of these basic building blocks or elementary particles; elementary particles make atoms, atoms make molecules, molecules make cells, and cells make brain. So in this view, what human beings—you and I—think of as our free will does not really exist. It is only an epiphenomenon or secondary phenomenon, secondary to the causal power of matter. And any causal power that we seem to be able to exert on matter is just an illusion. This is the current paradigm. Now, the opposite view is that everything starts with consciousness. That is, consciousness is the ground of all being."

It's very easy to fall in and drown in this quantum stuff, God knows, and maybe really only God knows. But people have been arguing about it ever since Einstein famously quipped "God does not play at dice with the universe," and Niels Bohr responded: "Einstein, quit telling God what to do!"

If reality is the ultimate puzzle, it's no wonder that people are drawn into solving it, whether it's in book form (The Da Vinci Code) or one of the surprise hits of the summer film festival season, Primer, which is a science fiction feature that has been drawing people back to see it seven or eight times in a effort to understand and solve the puzzle it presents. Wouldn't you know it always comes down to math?

But it isn't an artist's job to offer answers, only to pose the questions. Huckabees offers that everything is connected, entangled, just like in real life and that everything is absurd. Hence the comedy part of existentialism.
And hey, you're free to make up your own mind, just as your own mind makes you up.

Dorothy Woodend's film reviews for The Tyee run every Friday.

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