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  BELIEVE THE HYPE? I HEART HUCKABEES.  
   
   
 

With the endless influx of information available through every possible source and orifice, it's nearly impossible to sift through all the clutter and hype to figure out whether or not the hot new thing is any *good* or not. We at The Black Table are here to help. We proudly introduce "Believe The Hype," the new bi-weekly column from Tim Grierson, music critic and editor of The Simon. A Los Angelino, he's immune to the whims of New York's trendsetters, giving you a different take on whether that band, movie, show or trend that everyone's talking about it actually worth all the chatter -- rating them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 living up to expectations. He loves it when you think he's an idiot, so feel free to tell him so, or suggest future columns, at timgrierson@yahoo.com. Enjoy.

***

I suspect that Jason Schwartzman's character in I Heart Huckabees is very similar to a lot of the brainy young hipsters who will see this movie: well-read, insecure, thoughtful, a touch neurotic.

 
 

As Albert, an angry fellow obsessed with ridding the world of urban sprawl, Schwartzman seeks some answers in his life, something beyond the simple bromides of "get more exercise" or "see the world."

Writer-director David O. Russell understands lost souls like Albert; after all, they're the main population of his films. Whether it's the sexually confused Oedipal sufferer of Spanking the Monkey or the naïve Iraq War soldiers of

     
 

Three Kings, Russell bases his stories around frustrated men, burdened by ennui, and then thrusts them into a slightly bizarre plot in which the characters eventually work through their angst. Before Huckabees, Russell had relied on the screwball comedy or the politically themed war flick to decorate his serious questions of self-identity. Now that he's a cult figure -- on the scale of other American directors like P.T. Anderson and Wes Anderson -- he seems willing to push out further, creating a film that's an indie event for those who want to congratulate themselves for "getting" non-mainstream fare. While it's a decent, sincere work, I hope it doesn't perform too well. Russell's a great talent, but too much encouragement could seriously impair his growth.

In the critical community, Russell has been given practically a free ride because he's one of the few guys who tries to make distinctive films within the Hollywood system. While this is impressive, it isn't that amazing of an achievement all on its own. Three Kings is indeed a rather nervy anti-American movie about the arrogance of the first Iraq War -- released by Warner Bros., no less -- but that feat couldn't fully hide the story's conventional structure: Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Baghdad. Likewise, Flirting with Disaster is an authentically funny comedy -- there are few -- but its improvisational mania sometimes felt mannered, a smart guy's stab at this whole business of being zany. Spanking the Monkey is still his best work, perhaps because its narrative of a confused college student's growing infatuation with his mother wasn't tethered to intellectual ponderings.

Huckabees, unfortunately, continues Russell's journey in the other direction. It's all intellect with just the bare wisps of a story, its comedy and drama scrambled together. While the movie proves his talent to keep even this unfocused cluster of theories afloat, I wish he wasn't always trying to be so smart.

Billed as an existential comedy, Huckabees follows Albert as he enlists the help of a married detective team who investigate your life to uncover the sources of unhappiness. As another character describes it, they're not therapists per se, because they're more "proactive" -- they snoop, they follow, they interfere with your daily routine. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play the couple, just two of the big-name cast members Russell has recruited, which will set off warning bells for some people while delighting other folks.

Much like Wes Anderson's flicks, Huckabees squeezes in so many names as if to legitimize the experimental quality of the work: Oscar winners! Cult figures! A big star who's doing something a little different to boost his cache! Thankfully, Russell never seems too pleased with his showy cast -- or his odd storytelling choices. As Huckabees breaks from Albert to inspect a nihilistic fireman (Mark Wahlberg), a soulless sales executive (Jude Law), and a spokesmodel (Naomi Watts), Russell uses surreal special effects, altered states and a typically off-kilter Jon Brion score to create a highly stylized version of our world. The universe this film most closely matches is P.T. Anderson's brilliant Punch-Drunk Love, a hyper-alive Southern California that crashes the mundane into the truly odd again and again.

That collision of styles and moods is the most extreme of Russell's career, and while it does push him into agreeably kinky territory, it distracts him from the close attention to his characters which might make the film's themes connect. Russell has always held his protagonists at arm's length; you get the sense that we're staring at them on the screen from as far away as he is. And since he's fabricated such a twisty fable -- I won't get into the supermarket chain at the heart of the story or the other existential detective offering a contrary perspective on Albert's ennui -- it's even harder to tell up from and down. Truly, there were several moments in my screening where people didn't know whether to laugh or not: Was the sight of Jude Law vomiting into his hand a moment of cruel satire or a sobering realization on the character's part?

Without a clear point in mind, Russell riffs on our need for meaning. Some look to religion, some look to therapy, some look to shopping. Huckabees takes these ordinary problems and elevates them with a nervous brand of comedy where the characters seem legitimately unhinged, and no one can be completely trusted. Maybe he's just trying to capture the tenor of the times. (In a terrific throwaway laugh, Hoffman's character explains that Wahlberg's fireman has been a little off ever since "that September thing," turning 9/11 into just one more "symptom" of modern life.) But Russell's cornucopia of tones, as unpretentious and well-meaning as it may be, remains more involving than what comes from it. For some, that will be enough.

Hipsters, you see, love to congratulate themselves for how smart they are, for their ability to weave together the loose threads of a movie to see what it's "really" about. (What else are alternative-weekly film critics good for?) What a "normal" person finds insufferable, pretentious or off-putting, the hipster embraces as an emblem of cool. (I'm betting Albert would probably dig Russell's movie.) Of course, none of us are immune from such posturing. For instance, I take a certain amount of pride in a friend's comment about me: "You're a movie person. I don't go to movies to think -- I go to be entertained."

Yeah, most serious filmgoers like me want their brains to be engaged by the experience. But beyond a movie's philosophical or thematic content, there is that old bugaboo of the joy of the ride. Like it or not, we want to be entertained in one form or another. Movies like Huckabees get the first part down perfectly. There's much to tease the mind here, and I've had fun unraveling the ideas since I've seen the film. Ultimately, I think Russell made a gutsy existential comedy that is sporadically great. But I also feel that my friend won't be worse off for not being interested in the slightest.

Believe the Hype rating: 6 out of 10.
(10 being completely worth it, 1 being full of hot air)

 

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Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon.