A review requested by Kevin, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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I liked I ♥ Huckabees in 2004, and would most likely have given it a 4/5 review then; I continue to like I ♥ Huckabees in 2021, and you can see right there the 4/5 review now as well; but my reasons for liking it it in 2004 and in 2021 are in some cases very different. For one thing, in 2004, neurotic though I was, I certainly wasn't going to go around feeling nostalgic for 2004, and I'm not sure that nostalgia is precisely what I'm feeling right now, but it's something close to that. It was clear, even at the time, that I ♥ Huckabees was part of a general trend in American independent cinema, one that I think grew almost entirely out of the response to the early films of Wes Anderson, towards an extremely ironic, arch, decorative style of verbally witty comedies. This is not to say that such films didn't exist before Anderson - Whit Stillman and maybe even Todd Solondz feel like they were doing aspects of Anderson before Anderson was. Even this film's own director, David O. Russell, had gotten there first with Spanking the Monkey in 1994 and Flirting with Disaster in 1996. But I think it's pretty much indisputable that Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums sent the form into the stratosphere. At the time I called it "quirkycore", which I would swear up and down was not a term of my own invention, though I cannot now find any other reference to the word. And I did not like it all, though I liked some of it; some of it just seemed stuffed up its own ass and full of painfully twee humor.

The point being, it wasn't clear at the time that I ♥ Huckabees was nearer the end of this moment than the beginning; it petered out pretty fast starting in 2006, and was more or less dead after Juno in 2007. And this is part of why I am nostalgic, since viewed from all these years later, the film seems less like a good version of something that had plenty of bad versions, and more like some inexplicable alien object, beamed in from a lost world, where indie cinema could be this. The state of American independent cinema in at the start of the third decade of the 21st Century is, I think, very bad: much of it has devolved completely into making calling cards for Hollywood (which was always a threat, but it has become positively revolting over the course of the 2010s), and much of what's left is unbelievably dull mimicry of Dardenne brothers-style realism by filmmakers who can copy the Dardennes' ragged artlessness but not their psychological and sociological insight. It is almost entirely impossible for me to imagine a film like I ♥ Huckabees being made now, or having been made, finding such a relatively large audience; and that perhaps makes me overvalue it as something strange and precious from a time when movies like this and Me and You and Everyone We Know and even stuff I don't much care for like Garden State were just, like, out there. They were big deals, even.

Even so, this was always an especially bizarre, aggressive example of the indie (or in this case, the well-heeled studio-backed specialty label quasi-indie), and while some of the trappings have aged badly, it's astonishing how fresh the bulk of it still feels (really, the most dated thing is Jon Brion's beautifully airy and jingling, but unabashedly "mid-'00s indie rock" score). If I were to describe it simply, it would be to say "that movie that uses '30s-style screwball banter to discuss existential philosophical issues", and I'm not sure there's much yield to trying to describe it less simply. The story is a fog of characters smashing into each other like pinballs being lobbed into light-up bumpers, and the film is certainly easier to follow in broad strokes than if you're trying to keep track of every little wrinkle. So in the broad strokes: Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman, himself a pretty time-stamped element of '00s pseudo-indie cinema) is an environmental activist who hires a pair of "existential detectives", Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin), to stalk him and observe his life to figure out why he's so messed up. While they do so, his professional life is falling apart as his attempt to stop the big retail chain Huckabees from building a new store on a fragile wetland, and his position within the activist group is threatened by Brad Stand (Jude Law, in the best performance of his extraordinarily busy 2004), a freakishly charismatic, inveigling Huckabees executive. Bernard and Vivian, hoping to give a goose to his emotional state, pair him up with another client, obsessive anti-oil conspiracy theorist Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg, in the best performance of his entire career). Tommy, for his part, has been seduced by the writing of the detectives' greatest rival, French nihilist Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). And Brad's cynical co-opting of Bernard and Vivian's slogans has turned his girlfriend, Huckabees spokesmodel Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), into a true believe in their optimistic theories.

Even more simply, the film plays like somebody took a freshman year introduction to philosophy, and wrote a screenplay to summarise the experience. Basically, I ♥ Huckabees is about trying to decide between embracing the transcendentalist belief that all of us are always connected as one material thing, or the nihilistic belief that there is no connection, no meaning, only the ice-cold grip of lonely atomisation. Its shocking conclusion: actually, the truth, or at least the belief that allows you to function in the the world, is somewhere in between. It's not extraordinarily sophisticated philosophy, in other words, though I don't see how that's a real problem. For one thing, this is a 106-minute movie, and one that's designed to make us laugh, no less. It's absolutely interested in the ideas its bringing up (in fact, while the tone is undiluted Sophisticated Irony, the film is unstintingly sincere), poking at them with childish awe and coming up with some awfully neat ways to visually depict them, in the form of dream sequences, visions, and scenes of the screen breaking into little squares that appear to float around like dust particles. But it's not even pretending to be doing more than saying "wow, that's pretty cool", and giving Albert a way to carve out some of the messy nonsense of his life with some practical applications of some philosophical notions that are basically just common sense, with the caveat that the speed of life in the information age makes common sense uncommon.

For another thing, it's clearly the case that the film is a much about how it conveys these ideas as what ideas it conveys. I already said it: this is a movie about screwball banter, delivered at high speed, that is jam packed with some fairly dense philosophical theories. This is, I would contend, at least slightly amazing, and at least slightly unprecedented. Nor, to my knowledge, was the film's experiment ever repeated. It demands a fast ear, ready to absorb words at a tremendously high pace - already tricky enough, as any fan of '30s romantic comedies can tell you - and unlike the actual screwballs, where the speed is masking that the dialogue is basically just repetitive protestations of "you're a lunatic" / "but I'm in love with you", pretty much everything that gets said in I ♥ Huckabees only gets said once, and a lot of it ends up mattering later.

This sounds, maybe, like a lot of work, but in practice it's deliriously joyful. The film benefits from a ridiculously well-stocked cast, with its seven leads diving into the challenge of racing through this dialogue with evident relish; Schwartzman, poor bastard, is the designated straight man, which means he basically just has to be mild and sardonic, and doesn't get to have nearly as much fun as any of his co-stars, which means he's basically by default the least-interesting person. Literally everybody else is in peak form, whether it's in the form of stretching tart-tongued comic muscles we already knew they had (Hoffman, Tomlin), cheerfully travestying their personas as, respectively, a sexually mysterious neurotic and a charming, charismatic rogue (Huppert, Law), or leaning all the way into their persona as a kind of dumb nobody and using that as a springboard into a series of riffs on that persona, never quite coming across as "smart", but certainly attaining a delirious, high-energy sort of folk wisdom (Wahlberg). I can't even quite pinpoint what the hell Watts is up to, other than to say that I love it (it's her last really great performance until Twin Peaks: The Return, well over a decade later), and find it pretty exciting how committed she is to teasing us with her character's self-loathing without ever making it Dawn's "thing", and then how well she navigates the film's cartoonish comic ideas for what to do with her later on, while somehow emerging as the most dignified member of the entire cast as a result.

So it's hilarious just at the level of character; then it's hilarious at the level of its artificial, brittle dialogue ("Is it a crime to look at Lange?" is a personal favorite, though the best line, thanks in large part to Watts measured, mannered delivery, is the single word "Fuckabees"); then its hilarious at the level of its offbeat imagery, which captures the painfully anodyne world of corporate marketing in such a way as to make it seem genuinely strange, while making its découpage-like dream images feel even stranger, yet through repetition comforting and patterned. I think it is fairly obviously Russell's best film: this and Three Kings are the only times he ever really cared about visual storytelling, and this is much better as a performance showcase. In fact, given the astronomical degree of difficulty, I don't see how to avoid calling this his best work with actors ever, and whatever else we can say of Russell, he's an excellent director of actors.

So the high water mark of a pretty substantial figure from his generation of indie filmmakers, a hilarious movie whose humor is in large part theoretical and conceptual, and a dialogue-driven film with some pretty clever visuals; I ♥ Huckabees is at least slightly miraculous altogether. "They don't make 'em like this anymore" is a braindead cliché, but in this case it's truly accurate: they did make 'em like this, though virtually never this good, and it's a pretty big gap in the contemporary film landscape that they don't make 'em now. But at least it means that I ♥ Huckabees still feels bold and bracing. all these years on.