"How am I not myself?" - Brad Stand (Jude Law), I Heart Huckabees
I don't think I'm going too far out onto a limb in saying that no other movie released in 2004 came even close to the giddy philosophical mind-blow that was David O. Russell's existential madcap dramedy, I Heart Huckabees. If there was an Oscar for thematic overkill, this ensemble cast and its director would be a lock – the sheer volume of Russell's (and co-writer Jeff Baena's) ideas explode from the screen with such force that you spend more time dealing with the avalanche of information than becoming comfortable with the characters and the story; call it a Magnolia of the mind.
Plot summation for such a ideologically chaotic piece is an exercise in futility but it hasn't stopped most critics from giving it a shot: Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is a frustrated activist who feels that poetry and being in touch with inner pain accomplish more when it comes to saving a stretch of woods targeted for demolition by the mega-corporation Huckabees (a not-so-thinly-veiled stab at Wal-Mart), the obsequious public relations face of which, Brad Stand (Jude Law), tortures Albert by threatening to co-opt his Open Spaces Coalition. Into this conflict are drawn Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, respectively), a pair of existential detectives charged with unraveling a strange coincidence in Albert's life, thereby helping shake off his morose funk.
Brad's girlfriend and "the face of Huckabees," Dawn (Naomi Watts), the nihilistic French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) and a firefighter reeling from 9/11, Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) are soon sucked into Albert's existential whodunit with everyone's motives and decisions overlapping and causing a gigantic tangle of questions and theories. As Albert moves towards a more fully realized self, other characters in his orbit also begin to reach some kind of understanding about themselves and their lives; for some, it's a breakthrough, while for others, it's the beginning of a long, strange journey.
Russell, whose previous films (Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster) have hinted at this capacity for madcap, could not have possibly foreseen the delirious gusto with which he tackles the most inner components of life. Make no mistake – the bulk of I Heart Huckabees plays out like primal scream therapy. A psychologically dense and intricately structured narrative that reveals its ambitions slowly, Russell's film is maddening, exhilarating and ultimately, moving. Again, I can think of no other studio film in 2004 that attempted to delve into topics of this much substance and for that – if nothing else – film fans everywhere should lovingly embrace this surreal head-trip of a flick.
While not for everyone, this brain bender (very much on the cortex-twisting level of an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has much to offer for those willing to sit through the first 30 minutes; Russell takes his time and admits in his solo commentary track that he wanted the audience to gradually piece things together as the character of Albert does. For some, that may not happen fast enough but for those willingly to let the film work its odd magic, many riches can be found upon the first (and the guaranteed) repeat viewings. It's a zany masterpiece that can be appreciated on numerous levels and will someday take its place as a classic film.
Presented in a fine 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (as well as a 1.33 fullscreen transfer on the flipside), I Heart Huckabees looks great throughout. The vibrant colors pop, flesh tones and black levels are solid and I was hard-pressed to find a trace of grain, edge enhancement or softness. It's not quite reference quality but it doesn't detract from the presentation of Peter Deming's cinematography.
Since I Heart Huckabees is mostly dialogue-driven, there are few instances when the surrounds kick in but they do provide a healthy amount of ambience. Dolby Digital 5.1 is present, as is Spanish Dolby 2.0. Composer Jon Brion's score sounds warm and clear and dialogue (save for the scenes of shouting) is never distorted. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The staggering density of the supplemental material contained on this two-disc edition of I Heart Huckabees will definitely sate even the most die-hard fan; there are a ton of extras included here – so many that the decision by Fox to release a relatively bare bones edition the same day as this packed two-disc edition is odd. Why not just drop the rather high price of this set rather than also offering a more affordable movie-only disc (well, movie and two commentary tracks-only disc)? I suppose that's why I don't work in marketing.
The two commentary tracks – one with Russell flying solo, the other featuring Russell, Schwartzman, Watts and Wahlberg – are also available on this two-disc set. Russell's commentary is much more low-key and focused on technical aspects than the "party" track with the actors; some of the tangents that Russell chases during his track have the tendency to only make the film more disorienting than it is already. At any rate, the second disc is where the meat of the bonus material is contained. Got your Red Bull ready? This is gonna take a while.
It should probably also be noted at this point that the Amaray keep case for the film is exactly the same for both editions; the only difference is the two-disc version has a slipcover that mentions (strangely) only a few of the supplements contained within. First up is a 35-minute, fullscreen documentary titled
"Production Surveillance," shot by, among others, Russell's good friend Spike Jonze (his voice is heard frequently throughout the short). "Production Surveillance" vacillates between EPK fluff and a really, really bizarre home movie (in particular, Hoffman floats through like someone's lost relative). It fits well with the tone of the movie, but is an odd experience nonetheless – which could be said about most of the extras for I Heart Huckabees. Russell's appearance on "Charlie Rose" to promote the film is presented in serviceable fullscreen and runs 31 minutes. A whopping 51 minutes worth of deleted/extended scenes are on hand, all in non-anamorphic widescreen and helpfully labeled as to their place in the film – available individually or with a "play all" option. Four minutes of outtakes, also in non-anamorphic widescreen, are available separately or played all together.
Under "Miscellaneous Things People Did" is housed a four minute, 45 second fullscreen gag reel – for lack of a better description – set to Brion's score. "Infomercials, Commercials and PSAs" is exactly that (and a little bit more): a six and a half minute fullscreen featurette on production designer KK Barrett; a three and a half minute fullscreen featurette on costume designer Mark Bridges; six Open Spaces Coalition PSAs (in non-anamorphic widescreen) that clock in at an aggregate two minutes; all of the Huckabees commercials (in non-anamorphic widescreen) featuring Watts' character combine for a total of two minutes; a 13 and a half minute fullscreen featurette on Brion's score titled "Jon Brion Brings It To Huckabees;" a fullscreen photo montage set to Brion's score that runs for three minutes, 45 seconds; a surreal yet strangely informative 28 minute and 50 second fullscreen "infomercial" about the Jaffe's existential detective agency; 34 and a half minutes of "infomercial" extra dialogue (featuring such questions as "What is real?") and acoustic performance of two Brion songs not in the film, "Get What It's About" and "Over Our Heads" and closing out this section, a four minute, seven second fullscreen behind-the-scenes featurette on the "infomercial."
But wait – there's still more. Under the heading "Extras" (I guess the rest of this stuff is just fluff or something), you'll find the 36 second teaser trailer in non-anamorphic widescreen; the two minute, 11 second theatrical trailer in non-anamorphic widescreen; the two minute, 18 second non-anamorphic widescreen music video for Brion's "Knock Yourself Out," directed by Russell and co-starring Wahlberg and Schwartzman. There's also an 11-minute fullscreen featurette on the making of the music video as well as a Brion-narrated 30 second soundtrack spot.
Fueled by sheer bravura and enabled by a go-for-broke cast, David O. Russell's neurotic nod to the screwball comedy masters of yesteryear, I Heart Huckabees is the most original and brain-bending piece of Hollywood hilarity to arrive in some time. The jaw-dropping amount of bonus material (most of which actually doesn't suck) as well as the decent video/audio transfers make this two-disc edition a must for die-hard Huckabees-heads. Those curious or merely casual fans would do well to give the single disc version a rental spin, and then decide from there. Highly recommended.
Portions of this review were reprinted from the Oklahoma Gazette.