This week David O. Russell's new film 'The Fighter' arrives in theaters, riding on a wave of expectation unleashed primarily by the promise of actor Christian Bale's knockout performance as a washed-up, crack-addicted boxer, but also the dubious reputation earned by the director on his previous effort. Thus far all of his films have met with either critical or commercial success (or both), but after the disastrous revelation of behind-the-scenes footage of battles between Russell and co-star Lily Tomlin on 'I Heart Huckabees,' some industry insiders are curious to see what lessons he learned from the experience and/or how well he now plays with others.
Personally speaking, until a filmmaker or actor is actually rude to me, I don't care what they do on set; while I'd certainly prefer if all creative people were sensitive and generous, plenty of outright geniuses were obstinate, difficult people, whose work it must be said probably wouldn't have been as impactful without that intense force of will. Regardless, the question remains whether Russell's previous film transcends all of that hype, and perhaps as well whether he is himself one of those mercurial geniuses. As such, this week's selection for "Shelf Life" is 'I Heart Huckabees.'
The Facts: Released theatrically on October 1, 2004, 'I Heart Huckabees' was more or less immediately regarded as an intriguing but polarizing film, and it continues to enjoy a middling 61 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Moreover, the film's subject matter seemed to alienate both audiences and critics with its existential, labyrinthine structure and characters that verbalized a lot of those philosophies. Costing $22 million, the film earned only about $21 million during its theatrical run, effectively making it a box office failure, although thanks to its comparatively low production costs its performance was hardly disastrous. Meanwhile, the film won relatively little recognition from critics groups (though it earned "Best Ensemble" from the Central Ohio Film Critics Association).
What Still Works: I really enjoyed this film upon its initial release, and continue to six years later, although I can absolutely understand why some folks didn't enjoy or "get" it: its philosophical complexity belies certain, simple human truths that are either too indecipherable or too lovey-dovey for many to accept. Admittedly, the language can be incredibly dense, particularly in terms of the dynamics of the reality that the Jaffes try to introduce to Jason Schwartzman's character. But the bottom line of their beliefs is that we are all interconnected and we share many, many of the same traits, and are unable to recognize that in each other in a pure way because of the inescapable drama of human life.
The movie's real message is one of empathy – namely, that a greater understanding of ourselves can come from sensitivity to others. In that sense, the movie's not necessarily much different from other comedies, but it creates an unusual ensemble of characters in order to examine that message, and its language creates a literal philosophical foundation which those characters explore. And there's something really rewarding about the deceptiveness of that simple message in such complex packaging.
In terms of the performances, 'I Heart Huckbees' marked the first real noteworthy adult performance by Schwartzman, and he gives Albert the right degree of earnestness and self-awareness to make his journey interesting, funny, and evocative. Meanwhile as his other, Tommy, Mark Wahlberg gives one of the great performances of his career – a lively, free, funny and amazingly sympathetic turn from a guy who much more easily plays it straight and tough. He gives his character a febrile energy and an unpredictability that practically leaps off the screen, and enhances the entire film.
And although Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman and Jude Law all also give great performances, Naomi Watts not-so-quietly steals the show as a disintegrating spokesmodel; she can be relied upon to deliver great performances in almost anything, but here she takes the façade of a pretty, perfect young woman and shows how painful and self-destructive it can become.
What Doesn't Work: As indicated above, the film is pretty dense in terms of its many philosophical discussions, and there are more than a handful of conversations whose meanings are likely to be lost on many audiences. While repeat viewings certainly reward attentive viewers, it's that sometimes jumbled mass of philosophies which holds some viewers at arm's length. But then again, this was never meant for mass consumption, even if its message really does ultimately apply to everyone.
What's The Verdict: 'I Heart Huckabees' really holds up beautifully, and although it will always be a film that divides audiences, it's one whose fans will not only defend it but I think achieve a different sort of awareness as a result of that appreciation, be it cinematic or actually humanistic. As much as his previous films suggested Russell's talent and showed his ability to entertain, this one tests the tensile strength of his palpable intellect in that entertainment context, and whether or not you think it succeeds, it manages to aspire to something more significant or profound than many of the movies made in the last decade.
In many ways it's an embodiment of the occupations of post-millenial cinema, digging into our sense of self-worth and self-examination, and that alone is reason enough to declare 'I Heart Huckabees' a terrific movie as well as an important artistic achievement.
[Editor's Note: 'I Heart Huckabees' is available now online and in stores wherever DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.]