Did You Hear the One about Existentialism?
If there's any subject that lends itself to being taken too seriously, it's existentialism. It's inherent, isn't it? After all, it's about the meaning of life, and discussions about this philosophy lead easily to profundities and epiphanies. When any of us discover for ourselves the purpose of existence -- that is, settle on a philosophy that suits us -- we think we've been intellectually and spiritually rewarded. We'll try to use what we've found to guide us in our daily lives. We may even want to pass on our theories to others, in the hopes of sparking more epiphanies, for isn't it a joy to watch someone else "wake up" and gain a better perspective of life?
Existentialism is supposed to be thought-provoking -- not funny. Thankfully, director David O. Russell doesn't know this, for he's brought us I Heart Huckabees, an existential piece that embraces the search for the solution to the universe while mercilessly poking fun at it. This way, the process of putting life in perspective is itself put into perspective. It's actually one step past existentialism -- in other words, once we've figured it out, are we done? Do we then live perfect lives? I Heart Huckabees says, no we don't, and that's ok.
All phases of the existential journey are on display and lampooned here. We have the people who couldn't care less about this stuff. We have the person who didn't care (Jude Law), but then is somehow compelled to face the issue. We have the person who didn't know she cared (Naomi Watts) until she was exposed to the ideas. There's the person who's just started to care (Jason Schwartzman). There's the person who's on the brink of nailing down his answers (Mark Wahlberg). And there are the people who think they have all the answers (Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert), but it ain't necessarily so.
To assume that any of us has the definitive answers would be absurd, so the movie appropriately has these characters go through all sorts of absurd events. We're also allowed to see silly visualizations of some of these philosophies, some effectively illustrating the conscious struggle to grasp someone else's intelligent-sounding principles. The movie is a display of the state of modern existentialism in the sense that, these days, it frequently takes the form of instant gratification. Thus, we are given a collection of desperate personalities, and the lengths they go through to quell their desperation with as much immediacy as possible (there's a lot of chasing going on) provides much of the comedy. But even as we laugh, we're invited to consider the different approaches to the film's subject, which comes across as the flawed and funny but necessary human pursuit that it is.
The movie as a whole is engaging most of the time -- the humor is quirky and blunt, and the players really get into their parts. Russell spends a lot of time focusing on his characters' faces and their comic reactions to every new puzzling bit of wisdom spit out at them. They flail in exasperation as the film moves from one subplot to the next.
Because of the many character threads, the story tends to stall during some of its less interesting interactions, and when the zanier characters disappear for a while, sometimes the energy leaves with them. It's during these moments that, even with a comedic approach, the existential talk can cause one to zone out. Naturally, any movie that tackles the subject runs this risk. Most of these films are dramas, so one often gets the urge to hold this potential boredom factor against them. The alternative light approach that I Heart Huckabees takes is therefore quite welcome after we've put everything else in perspective.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "R" for language and a sex scene.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.