Toward the end of I Heart Huckabees, the “existential detective” Vivian Jaffe (Lily Tomlin) is talking with a client. As the camera swings back her way we discover that she has unexpectedly taken out a pair of large, bone-colored knitting needles and is busily working some black yarn. This startling visual distraction must mean something (recall Chekhov’s famous dictum that a gun seen in the first act must be fired in the next), so the viewer immediately does a mental Google on “knitters.” Top result is Dickens’s cruel Madame Defarge. Compare and contrast: Vivian Jaffe is like Mme Defarge in these ways; she is not like her in those ways.
Or maybe it’s meaningless, in which case, forget the whole thing. That’s the problem with this well-meaning, well-acted comedy. Director David O. Russell wants us to ponder the big questions of life, and sets out two alternatives: Either everything is “connected” as in a big, fluffy blanket (so say Vivian and her endearingly daffy husband Bernard, played by Dustin Hoffman), or life is loneliness, pointlessness, “cruelty, manipulation, and meaninglessness,” as it says on the business card of the Jaffe’s philosophical competitor, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert).
The story begins when our hero, mopey environmental activist Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), starts to worry that his life’s work is pointless. Sure, he saved a big rock from a developer, and even wrote a poem about it (“You rock, rock”), but a few coincidental encounters with a Sudanese refugee lead him to wonder whether there’s a hidden pattern to his life. He happens on the Jaffes’ business card and goes to their office. Vivian promises to spy on him, looking for connections; Bernard gives him a good-natured, spacey pep talk about the unity of the blanket universe (“Everything you could ever want or be you already have and are”).
But something is already off; the movie can’t keep its philosophical teams straight. The Jaffes tell Albert that his encounters with the Sudanese are probably irrelevant because “some coincidences are meaningless.” How can that be, if the whole universe is as interwoven as they insist? On the other hand, it is their competitor Caterine, champion of meaninglessness, who eventually reveals to Albert the meaning of his connection with the Sudanese refugee.
If all this sounds soggy, the movie itself is a lot more fun. The underlying story is good, though not excessively original: While Albert is brooding about his life, his nemesis, dashing corporate exec Brad Stand (Jude Law, grinning around a mouthful of dazzling teeth), has his own troubles to work out. The dark, grumpy guy and the shiny, charming guy have episodes that range from very funny to thought-provoking, and even to successfully poignant. Albert makes a friend through the Jaffes, Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg, a firefighter so environmentally conscious he rides a bike to fires), and Brad has a girlfriend, Dawn (Naomi Watts, a bit overshadowed by the rest of this dynamic cast). When these characters start bouncing off each other as well as the Jaffes and Caterine, the soundstage gets over-crowded. There’s a lot of promise here, but so much is going on that it’s hard to follow, and everybody talks, talks, talks, the cleverness troweled on as thickly as Vivian Jaffe’s makeup.
If this movie were merely about these intriguing, quirky characters and how they interact and change each other, it would have been pretty good. But the overlay of self-conscious and inconsistent philosophizing jams the circuits, and breeds mistrust in the viewer. As in any movie, we are supposed to watch the characters’ lives unfold and figure out the patterns. In this case, we’re explicitly told to think about whether there are patterns in lives, or meaning in the universe. But all we can see of these lives is ladled out by the filmmaker, and which way is he trying to make us lean? Is he doling out coincidences or red herrings? Those knitting needles, for instance–if we spend some time figuring out what they mean, will we get more out of the movie or fall for a trick?
You would think that randomizing an artwork would make it more interesting, but the opposite is true. If, after a few tries, we suspect there is no pattern worth applying our memory to, we check out. Everything that doesn’t make sense sounds alike. It gets tossed into the mind box where we throw other things not worth attending to, like the humming of a refrigerator.
A movie that wants us to question whether there is an underlying coherence to life will self-sabotage if it doesn’t have an underlying coherence of its own. This is because there is a unifying intelligence behind a movie, and that turns out to be the real question about the universe. It’s not whether life is “connected” or “disconnected;” obviously, it’s both. We are connected by being enmeshed in an interdependent bio- and ecological life; we are disconnected in that every human being’s consciousness is isolated in his own skin, and makes contact with others over a painfully great divide.
The big question is not whether there are connections or not, but whether there is a guiding intelligence behind the connections, like the guiding intelligence behind a movie. The elephant in the theater lobby is God. Director Russell does his best to keep us from considering theology alongside our philosophy, and just to make sure, presents a jarringly ugly caricature of a Christian family so we’ll know whose ideas are unforgivably uncool. Brad is scolded for not being kinder to his fat, ugly brother; no such tolerance for the fat, ugly brother in the Christian family. Directors may be all-controlling, but sometimes they reveal things about their prejudices that they don’t know about themselves.
In the very last scene, Albert and Tommy sit on the rescued rock and talk and talk in a veritable denouement dump. Midway through the scene, Tom pulls out a red licorice stick and starts chewing on it. Meaningful or meaningless? I’m not even going to ask.
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.