How director David O. Russell roped Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman and others into tackling the unbearable lightness of pure being in a madcap new comedy I &hearts Huckabees.
Soul Searching: Leigh Singer
David O. Russell’s interview has started - there he is, the youthful 46-year old New York filmmaker, languidly sitting opposite - yet there’s a nagging feeling that he hasn’t quite arrived yet. It’s not just the way he leisurely chugs half a two-liter bottle of mineral water in one go before answering a question. When he eventually does start talking, his mind is still tuned into his previous filmed discussion next door for Channel 4’s 100 Greatest War Films. “The room was so hot, you don’t realize your shirt is soaked because you’re concentrating on the questions,” he confides. Hmm. More than can be said for what he’s doing here.
Still for all the distractions, tangents and possible discrepancies in time and space, Russell’s never less than weirdly fascinating and entertaining kind of like his new film, I &hearts Huckabees. A unique comedy that spins from screwball laughs to philosophical exploration, usually within the same scene, it defies the customary Hollywood high-concept pitch. So how on earth does its director / co-writer sell it to the studio picking up the cheque?
“I say that Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are existential detectives that you would hire to investigate the meaning of your life at this moment, a bit of a Nick and Nora Charles couple,’ Russell calmly explains. ‘They have clients who include Mark Wahlberg, Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law and Naomi Watts and their nemesis is Isabelle Huppert. Hilarity ensues.”
Oh. Simple, really.
Except of course it isn’t that straightforward and you know that Russell knows it. True enough after three wildly divergent films the incest-themed black comedy Spanking the Monkey, wild adoption farce Flirting With Disaster and the highly-regarded Gulf War drama Three Kings the filmmaker had built up some cache in Hollywood. Still, start bandying around words like ‘existential detectives’, let alone ‘Lily Tomlin’ or ‘Isabelle Huppert’ and you can see the sweat forming on executive brows. Name-dropping box-office draws like Law, Wahlberg and Watts certainly eases the pressure, but there’s no doubt that Russell’s concept was risky. He’s clear, however, that his gamble paid off.
“It worked in the sense that I knew that I had a bit of an opportunity to make a film now and I wanted to take a risk, because Three Kings was a picture that made money,’ he reasons. ‘The most important thing to me is that it’s antic and fun. While it has all these other ideas, I think that people who have the best time with Huckabees are those who feel kind of elated by it and go with it and the ideas are sort of sorted out afterwards.”
Wise words. So leaving aside this abundance of ideas that seem to burst out of film’s very sprockets, let’s start with the bare bones of plot. Albert Markovski (Schwartzman) is a young man in a crisis. A dedicated environmentalist who fights to preserve nature from corporate colonization and occasional poet (sample line in an ode to geology: “You rock, rock.”), he’s struggling to make sense of his life. A series of coincidental meetings with an unfeasibly tall African bellhop leads him to hire existential detectives Vivian (Tomlin) and Bernard (Hoffman) Jaffe. These married metaphysicians investigate their clients’ innermost lives, following and observing the minutiae of their daily existence, in an attempt to show them their place in the universe.
To the Jaffes, nothing is coincidence. Everything is connected. As Bernard illustrates to Albert using points on a bedcover, “Say this blanket represents all the matter and energy in the universe, okay? This is me, this is you, and over here, this is the Eiffel Tower, right? It's Paris!”
Gradually the Jaffes uncover Albert’s ongoing feud with Brad Stand (Law), a slick, successful executive with retail emporium Huckabees, who dates the company’s advertising star Dawn (Watts) and wants to co-opt Albert’s Open Spaces Coalition for useful PR. The detectives pair Albert up with a hotheaded firefighter Tommy (Wahlberg), profoundly disillusioned after September 11th, though soon they face a battle over their clients from their former protégée-turned-rival, French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Huppert), whose nihilistic doctrine of life’s meaningless and cruelty is violently at odds with their own.
If merely hearing or watching the basics of Russell’s treatise seems daunting, imagine having to enact it. Did Russell get baffled looks from those to whom he sent his freewheeling screenplay?
“Jude got it right away, more or less,” Russell says. ‘He thought his character was hilarious. I would say that many of the actors probably didn’t get it completely but that was fine with me. It was written for Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg and Lily Tomlin in particular because they’re friends of mine and they would hang out with me a lot the year previous to making it. We would talk about the ideas in the film so I think they had a sense of what it was.’
What about the veteran Dustin Hoffman, notorious for dissecting his scripts and directors? “Dustin had wanted to be in Three Kings and when that didn’t work out he was very disappointed and asked me to write something else for him,” adds Russell. “So I wrote this and sent it to him and he said please come to my home and read it to me out loud. So I went over and it took two days because we would stop and talk about it.”
That’s the thing with Huckabees: &hearts it or hate it and there are plenty of people on both sides it’s not a film that stifles debate. Hardly shocking really, when the film casually throws up questions about the nature of pure being, quantum physics and the meaning of existence, all interspersed with manic chases and pratfalls.
“It was the decision of [co-writer] Jeff Baena and I to make it a film like Chinatown where you don’t immediately grasp everything, y’know?” Russell claims. “That’s typically fine the first time around for audiences with films like The Matrix where it’s bigger and more dramatic, but in a comedy people don’t expect that. So maybe that’s the thing that’s different this time in a comedy you’re expected to have a more immediate grasp of things because comedy’s more immediately graspable you get the physical humour when Jason is flung to the ground by Mark or Lily dives into the window of a car.”
It’s a fine balancing act to achieve particularly with material as personal to Russell as this is. Far from the movie-soaked childhoods of a Tarantino or a Paul Thomas Anderson, Russell’s route into film was a very different one. “I didn’t get into cinema until I was 30,” he admits, “which is late by today’s standards. I was an activist much like Jason’s character, who stood in parking lots handing out flyers to help things, whether they were schools or in some cases it was housing we were trying to improve. You’d have some people really interested and some people spit their gum at you.”
Rather than film school, Russell studied religion and literature at college, taking classes from the renowned scholar and former Tibetan Buddhist monk, Robert Thurman. Thurman was the inspiration for Bernard Jaffe thankfully minus Hoffman’s grey Beatle-esque mop-top wig though Russell remains a little coy as to why he didn’t invite Thurman’s somewhat better known daughter Uma into the cast. “Uh, no,” he smiles, “I felt like, she’s off in China making Kill Bill…”
Uh oh. Russell has suddenly noticed the Huckabees-esque rainbow-checked lighting effect on the wall behind him and is dazzled to find the cameraman has deliberately staged it for later TV interviews. “Way to go, man!” he nods. “I’d like to have that follow me around all day…” If it isn’t yet apparent, David O. Russell has a different way of doing things. Which makes you wonder just how he runs his film sets. Highly-publicized clashes some physical - with star George Clooney on Three Kings gave much grist to the gossip mills at the time, so how did he guide such an eclectic cast through such a whacked-out script?
“Well, because I wanted everyone else to be uninhibited, I myself was uninhibited,” he explains. “So we would dance and talk and joke around, and it was a bit of a raucous set. It was also a comedy so I liked having that environment. On Three Kings it wouldn’t have fit but here it fit perfectly. I don’t like to cut, I like to let the [film cartridge] mag roll, which is 12 minutes, which I didn’t even know Dustin pointed it out to me. I was not aware of it as a thing, I just went ahead and did it.”
Suddenly Russell is on a roll, arms pivoting, words tumbling out. “I find when you cut, especially in an ensemble comedy, the energy goes out of the room. And if you and you” he jabs at imaginary people dotted around the room “are doing great but you and you are not, we cut and come back and now you and you are great and now you and you are not. So how do we get everybody with the same energy at the same time? So if I don’t cut and I joke and talk with you, you forget the camera is rolling and you have the sense that it’s an endless rehearsal, which I think the actors uniformly loved. They told me they’d never felt so relaxed before.”
Casual but focused. Posing serious questions but with a sense of humour. It might sound contradictory but certainly Russell sees it not just as a way to make movies but as a guide to life. “That’s the way that I like to live, to ask questions and to question your perceptions,” he says. “One of the great things about any metaphysical tradition, whether it’s Christian or Eastern, is that you can’t just accept at face value your first perception of things. That’s not going to lead you to something bigger or closer to what the truth is of what we really are.”
And why should such an investigation be confined to Morpheus-style po-faced Matrix riddles? Or humourless intellectual doctrine? Why not have some fun? “Philosophy is only interesting to me in so far as it is practical and makes you feel more alive,” Russell maintains. “It doesn’t interest me beyond that.” So if the farce is with you, welcome to Huckabees. Maybe you only truly feed your soul when you can tap into something you really &hearts .
Watching the Detectives
Huckabees’ existential ‘tecs aren’t the only unconventional sleuths around…
Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) - The Gift (2000) bayou fortuneteller Annie’s psychic powers come in handy for solving a local murder, though more conventional investigators might consider ESP cheating.
Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) - Zero Effect (1998) the world’s greatest and priciest - private investigator has uncanny intuitive skills that still don’t help him solve his own reclusive, paranoid mess of a private life.
Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) - The Bone Collector (1999) being a bed-ridden quadriplegic doesn’t stop top forensic cop tracking down a serial killer, given free use of Angelina Jolie’s body (not as lucky as it sounds).
Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey) Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) the pet dick who talks through his butt specializes in animal cases. He loves them, see especially if it gets cold enough.
Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) Murder, She Wrote (1984-96) crime writer whose incredible knack of solving real-life murders pales beside the terrifying fact that wherever she goes, people drop dead.
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