I ♥ Huckabees is not as obscene as The Big Lebowski, but in the opening scene, I thought Huckabees was going to give it a run for its money. Fortunately, it settles down... no, wait. This movie never settles down. It's like a manic depressive who reads a lot of Continental philosophy and has stopped taking his meds.
That being said, I enjoyed Huckabees a lot, but the more I think about it, the less satisfied I am with it. See, I understand what the people in the movie are talking about, no mean feat, considering the number of times I wanted to just shout - with non-derisive laughter, I should make that clear - "What the hell are you talking about?! Talk sense!" One of the things that motivated my exit from professional philosophy in favor of something a little more concrete was picking up a copy of Foucault's Madness and Civilization and realizing that even though I understood what he was saying, he wasn't really saying anything. Or, at least, the few splinters of actual assertion were buried under so much obscurantist language that it wasn't really worth the effort of reading the damned thing.
This is frequently true of Huckabees' "existential detectives", played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin. When Albert (Schwartzman) first meets Hoffman's character, Bernard, he is immediately accosted with a metaphor. Bernard asserts that the whole universe is like a blanket. This bit here is me, this bit here is you, this bit here is Paris, and this bit here is a cheeseburger. It's all connected, etc., etc. What makes this conversation entirely outrageous to watch is that Bernard produces the blanket in question and proceeds to gesture with it. Much of the philosophical discussion in the movie - and seeing as it's billed as an "existential comedy" you can be sure there's a lot of it - runs in this vein, a delightfully absurdist backdrop to a series of delightfully absurd theories. I've always thought that someone who took seriously connectedness in the way philosophers talk about it would be rather strange. I was right. These people are damn weird.
If Tomlin and Hoffman represent the New Agey, "all is one and one is all" side of existentialism, a side which professional philosophers tend not to take particularly seriously, seeing as many of its practitioners are given to silly things like Wicca (don't get me started, but feel free to send hate mail), then Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) represents the majority position amongst existentialists, if such a thing can be said to exist. She is something of a nihilist, and "gets to" Albert and his "Other" (don't ask) when they start to grow frustrated with the unflagging optimism of our two detectives. She is actually the vehicle that Russell (who also directed Three Kings if you'll believe that) uses to discuss the more interesting subjects the movie touches on. She is the one who brings Albert home to confront his parents about the way they've treated him. She is the one who provides something like an honest look at suffering and "human drama" as she and the actual philosophers who she represents put it.
She is also the means by which the connection between nihilistic existentialism and, umm, S&M. Don't laugh, and don't, please don't think this is a stretch. Michel Foucault died of AIDS in 1984, probably acquired through the gay and S&M scene he was active in during his stay in San Francisco in the early 1980s. One of his more important works is entitled Discipline and Punish. I'm not going to go into why this makes sense here, but if you don't already see the connection, Huckabees will do a bit to help you out there. But don't worry. There isn't anything particularly offensive, and S&M is never discussed, or even broached. Russell is subtle enough so that if you weren't aware of the historical background, you'd probably miss the reference. Which, for a thing like this, is a very, very good thing.
There's a scene in the film where are two "heroes" (I guess I can call them that. Can I call them that? Sure, what else am I going to say?) visit the home of some conservative Christians. I may be reading this the way I want it to read, but I get the impression that Russell thinks that conservatism and its opposites are both pretty silly. Walhberg's character is obsessed about the moral evil of using any petroleum products (what the hell?), and is met with a decidedly uncivil response by the host. Which, while unpleasant to watch, was pretty understandable. Insisting that Jesus is angry with you because you drive an SUV and calling your host a hypocrite is not exactly what passes for polite dinner conversation. Albert remarks that "It's crazy in there," but both sides wind up looking pretty insane.
Basically, the detectives represent one side of existential thought, and our black-wearing French woman represents the other side. So far, so good, right? I suppose. Russell does a good job of presenting some ideas which tend to appear fairly silly at first glance that, with a bit of thought and some background materials, are actually kind of profound. He does this well, preserving both the absurdity and significance, without being either cynical or ironic. He then proceeds to come up with an ending that was unsatisfying on the scale of Cast Away. A great beginning, lots of thoughtful points to be made, some truly touching scenes, and a complete failure of nerve in the last five minutes.
One of the things I like most about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is that it's a deeply human movie. Huckabees is far from this. Nietzsche announced the death of God, but it was Foucault who announced the death of man, and now we see what that looks like. Scattered, self-descructive, and, well, small. Somehow being connected to everything doesn't seem to make much of a difference if no one cares. And gosh darn it, we aren't big enough to infuse our world with meaning. On a good day, I can get through most of my various activites without too much of a problem. I don't have the resources to provide the kind of anchorage needed to hold down my life, and you don't either.
One of the most interesting things said in the whole movie was said in passing. Mark Wahlberg is having a face-to-face argument with Hoffman, in one of the best scenes in the film, and he yells, something like "How do you know?" Hoffman's response is, "Trust." I thought for a brief moment that the movie was going to get a hell of a lot better, but they quickly got on with the plot. The film has no discussion of the possibility of providence. None. The tangental scene with the Christian family is the only mention God rates in this film. Which makes for a decidedly narrow vision, no matter how you slice it.
This isn't so say that the movie is bad because it doesn't reach orthodox Christian conclusions. I enjoyed the movie a lot. I get a kick out of laughing at the horseshit that philosophers think is profound, but I enjoy it because I understand what they're saying and can appreciate the point they're trying to make. I just think it's funny the circumlocutions they go through. I dislike people who laugh at philsophers because they can't be bothered to understand. I ♥ Huckabees provides ample opportunities to laugh at the absurdities of contemporary philosophy while still taking it seriously and doing it justice. It's also pretty damn funny most of the time.
Still, I think Edelstein is right about a lot of what he has to say. The movie is rather devoid of emotional depth in many places, and never seems to settle down from its manic state. If you have an interest in things philosophical, you should really see the movie.Posted by ryan at October 1, 2004 11:34 PM