Saturday 11 March 2017

On Second Thoughts... I ♥ Huckabees (2004)

Welcome to On Second Thoughts..., a new column in which I look back at a movie I didn't much care for on first viewing and give it a second chance to impress me (I'm sure filmmakers the world over will be humbled by my magnanimity). Most of the films I cover in these columns will be ones I haven't seen in years, so there's a good chance my opinions and feelings about them may have changed over time. Well, that's the idea, anyway...

What is it? I ♥ Huckabees was director/co-writer David O Russell's fourth feature and the follow-up to his critically lauded Iraq War/heist picture, 1999's Three Kings, which, as far I'm concerned, remains easily his best film. Huckabees featured an all-star cast, including Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, and Jason Schwartzman. It's a very different film to Kings (to say the least) and was billed as an "existential comedy".

What's it about? Hoffman and Tomlin are Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, husband-and-wife "existential detectives", who are paid by clients not to uncover spousal cheating or locate long-lost relatives, but to investigate the meaning of their lives. Albert (Schwartzman) - the head of an activist group (Open Spaces) campaigning to prevent Huckabees department stores from building a new branch on a local beauty spot - asks the pair to look into why he keeps running into the same tall black guy (Ger Duany) in different areas of his life. He believes this coincidence has some significance.

Meanwhile, Albert's activist colleague, Brad (played with bounderish glee by Jude Law), is conspiring to oust him from his position with Open Spaces and sell out the local woods and marshes to the Huckabees chain. Albert and new fireman pal Tommy (Wahlberg) battle to prevent this from happening while coming increasingly under the influence of the detectives' arch-nemesis, Catherine Vauban (Huppert), a French nihilist for whom the universe is a dark, disturbing place in which Bernard and Vivian's hippy-dippy ideas of interconnectedness have no place.

Wild at Heart: Huckerbees is an enjoyable screwball romp

Why didn't I like it first time round? I thought it was twee, pretentious (a lazy description I'd never use now), and pretty much unbearable. Like being locked in a room with a first-year philosophy student who'd read a bit about Kierkegaard and Sartre on Wikipedia and now felt qualified to share it with the world. As a result, I didn't watch another film by Russell until American Hustle, in 2013. The situation wasn't helped when unpleasant footage emerged of the director being abusive towards Tomlin on the movie's set. I figured he was a filmmaker with whom I was done for good.

Why am I rewatching it now? My feelings towards Russell have softened somewhat in recent years, especially since he and Tomlin patched it up (in 2015, when asked by the Hollywood Reporter whether she'd work with him again, Tomlin replied: "Of course I would! I adore him, I love him. He’s brilliant"). I also really liked Russell's most recent film, Joy, an underrated biopic that genuinely tried to do something different in a tired sub-genre. Plus, Hoffman, Tomlin and Huppert are ALWAYS worth watching.

Has my opinion changed? I must have been in a truly horrible mood back in 2004 because Huckabees is actually a lot of fun. Maddening and up itself, certainly, but also breathless, boisterous, smart and ambitious. The idea of exploring different philosophical doctrines - interconnectedness versus nihilism - via the medium of a screwball comedy full of rat-a-tat dialogue and surreal digressions is a truly inspired one and Russell, plus co-writer Jeff Baena, pulls it off impressively. I've been wondering if the film was a response to the huge political and philosophical schism that existed in America, post-911 and the second Iraq War. It would certainly make sense if so and, of course, Russell's film is just as relevant today. Perhaps, even more so. 

The cast are all incredibly game and the scene in which Schwartzman and Huppert cover each other in mud before having sex in the woods has to be seen to be believed, while Wahlberg turns in one of his very best performances as a Regular Joe fire fighter/no-nonsense philosopher, struggling to find meaning in a world full of injustice. Tomlin and Hoffman are dependably terrific and, while comedy isn't really Huppert's forte, she brings a delicious hauteur to her role as the Gallic ice maiden, whose business card reads: "Cruelty, Manipulation, Meaninglessness". One of the things that really struck me while watching the film was some of the amusing combinations of talent it threw together: not just genuine greats such as Hoffman and Huppert sharing scenes, but when are you ever likely to get Huppert and Wahlberg together on screen again? Somehow I can't see the Elle actress cropping up in Ted 3: Thunder Buddies In Paris.

So, have I learned to truly ♥ Huckabees? Well, let's not get carried away, but I certainly like it an awful lot more than I used to.

Scene you should check out on YouTube right now: Schwartzman and Wahlberg visit Stephen, the tall black guy who the former keeps running into, and are invited to have dinner with his adopted white Christian family (including Jonah Hill in an early role). Suffice to say, it goes horribly, hilariously badly...

Rating then: W
Rating now: WWW

Coming soon: Donnie Darko

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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