I Heart Hegel

David O. Russell delivers a comedy that gets both philosophy and funny business right

It's hard to imagine how a film full of legitimate philosophical discussion got the green light from a major movie distributor. I can only assume that when writer/director David O. Russell came into the office, the usual semi-literates who run things out in H-wood were off on a consciousness-raising retreat sponsored by some crowd-pleasing con-man who pretends he's channeling the ghost of a waterlogged Atlantean.

In place of the sweaty, pandering whore-mongers who usually head up the main office, a young assistant with a master's in 19th-century German philosophy must have been manning the phones, and this brave young woman no doubt saw her one chance to green-light a picture that was as much Hegel and Heidegger as it was Breasts and Bottoms.

And thus we have what will probably be the last film to present an actual existential dialectic. By which I mean: I Heart Huckabees is a zany, fun-house ride of the mind! Put on your laughing-cap! I Heart Huckabees will make you think ... about laughing! To be is to be laughing ... at I Heart Huckabees!

But it's not all fun and games, people. No, I Heart Huckabees takes on some serious issues, like our encroachment on the environment and the inherent human egoism that leads us to place our self-aggrandizement above our best interests. Plus, the meaning of life in the universe, and what it is to be, and what it is to hucka-be.

Jason Schwartzman, who's been looking for a good role since he starred in Rushmore, plays Albert Markovski, poet and crusader for wetlands rights who is trying to stop a giant retailer from parking its tail on a beloved marsh.

Opposing him is Jude Law as Brad Stand--a handsome, well-dressed corporate hack who takes over Markovski's environmental coalition and steers it in more market-friendly directions.

Meanwhile, Markovski is bedeviled by a strange and probably meaningless coincidence: He keeps running into the same tall African man. Seeking aid, he goes to the office of existential detectives Bernard and Vivian (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), who promise to follow him around and provide him with some basic answers about life, the universe and everything.

But dark, French forces--played by light, French beauty Isabelle Huppert--are conspiring to lead Markovski away from the happy existentialism of Bernard and Vivian and into a shadowy and meaningless world without connection.

What's really nice about the philosophical debate between the two sides is that the conversations are shockingly un-stupid. It's incredibly rare to see philosophy done right in cinema, as it's usually presented as a series of simplistic answers that are designed to "blow your mind" and "con you out of your money" (cf. What The Bleep Do We Know, an evil effort from earlier this year that used pseudo-science and special effects to propagate a series of dumbed-down deceptions about the nature of reality). In Huckabees, different positions are presented in a fairly accurate light, and there's no reliance on pseudo-science or easily discounted BS in order to make the philosophy "fun" and "marketable."

Unfortunately, this may be the film's biggest flaw. I think that for the average viewer, the philosophizing probably goes on too long, and the extended dialogue tends to overwhelm the dramatic thrust of the film.

So you have to decide if you're willing to sit through a comedy that's very talky. Not that it's all talk; there are still the more traditional comic elements, like people falling in mud or hitting each other in the face with rubber balls or not being able to communicate the name of a baseball player who is stationed at first base, but they're spaced out with some dialogue that might only be funny if you actually bothered to read past the preface of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (though I think you'll still get the jokes even if you skipped the section on appearance and the super-sensible world).

Even if existentialism is not your cup of tea, you might enjoy I Heart Huckabees just for the creativity, thoughtfulness and subtlety of the film work. One of my favorite elements of this movie is that characters are frequently moist. Spots of perspiration or accidental sprays of water dampen their clothes, and people appear mysteriously wet and disheveled as they enter and exit rooms.

Seeing as the central story of the film is about an attempt to preserve wetlands, this gag should be obvious, but it's woven into the film so subtly that it just seems bizarre and somehow compelling until the why of the wetness hits you.

Which is kind of the idea of Huckabees in general; it asks a bit of thought from the viewer. It rewards that thought with scenes of Naomi Watts in a bikini, or, if that's not your thing, with shots of Mark Walhberg's impressive biceps. It also offers some stunningly cool psychedelic filmmaking and a slew of great comic performances from pretty much everyone in the cast, even Dustin Hoffman.

So, hell, toss your dollars at this one--please? If not for yourself, then for this humble critic, who would like to encourage Hollywood's silicone-inflated breasts to continue to nurse this kind of thoughtfulness in cinema. If this movie does well, we might just find ourselves in a future where Adam Sandler reads from Kierkegaard while Jimmy Fallon hits him on the head with a vomit-coated dead fish. Or, at least, such is the dream.

I Heart Huckabees is not showing in any theaters in the area.

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