The thing that sucks most about movies like I Heart Huckabees is that they're designed to flatter the audience into feeling "intellectual" or "deep" without actually providing any kind of legitimately sophisticated content to back up that borrowed aura. Sure, no studio wants to finance something like that when the idea only exists on paper, but as soon as someone finally does put some money behind it, they acquire the cachet of being a patron of a "mad genius."
And seriously, are there any other kind of geniuses these days?
Anytime I read about a director who simply has a personal vision that's the slightest bit off-beat, s/he gets praised as not just being a genius, but being a mad genius: Tarantino, Spike Jonze, even Peter Jackson. Don't get me wrong, kittens, I'm a fan of all three of those guys, but I just object to the knee-jerk classification that dictates they get described in terms that are both hyperbolic and reductive while the plain old unflashy geniuses like Richard Linklater or David Gordon Green are, if not outright ignored for the ways they're moving the medium forward, at least subject to a kind of prissy appreciation that stops short of the respect they're due because they're not, y'know, "mad." Whatever. The whole mad genius thing has been bugging me for a while now because it just smacks of the most insulting kind of American anti-intellectualism. The classification "mad genius" is a handy way we've found to begrudgingly acknowledge objective excellence/superiority in the arts while simultaneously simplifying it into/dismissing it as something more or less quaint. The perception seems to be that "a genius" is staid, stodgy, the provenance of fusty old professors--we got no use fer that. However, "a mad genius" is cuddly, undisciplined, and, moreover, the kind of artist we fancy we would be if someone would finally recognize our hidden talents. (This kind of goes back to the unexpected and challenging point raised in The Incredibles: if everyone is special, then no one is.) And, maybe this is all more on-point than I even meant it to be since the frustrating averageness of Huckabees is perhaps what riled me most about it--a high-profile Hollywood director as scandalously talented as David O. Russell who also happened to study Tibetan Buddhism with Bob Thurman should have been able to come up with a movie that was a bit more intellectually rigorous than this glorified film version of the "whoa, dude, what does it all mean?" conversation that pretty much all of us had at some point during our freshman year in college.
I love a good madcap cinematic romp. The promise that this was going to be an existential comedy had me humming with anticipation to see the thing. To be fair, there was probably no way it was going to live up to a) my anticipation of it or b) my standards. I mean, short of being written by Tom Stoppard, I don't think the movie possibly could have done justice to its primary conceit--at least in the way that I would have wanted to see it. But regardless of the fact that the movie didn't succeed philosophically, it fell on its face comedically as well. Film comedy has got to be controlled chaos. I was reading an interview with Russell in the Tom Hanks issue of Premiere magazine, and, aside from the fact that the interviewer claims this movie has "more layers than a Viennese pastry" (uh, no), she also pulled out of him descriptions of his working methods on set, which included shouting to Naomi Watts, "get crazy, you bitch!" I'm not at all offended by the idea of a director being a bit belligerent to get the performance s/he needs out of an actor, and I don't buy into the idea that George Clooney likes to perpetuate that Russell is some out-of-control maniac who gets off abusing PAs, techies, extras, and actors just for the sake of a power trip or whatever. I only include this anecdote here to make the point that, even if you have to be a bit unorthodox to make magic happen for the camera, you have to edit the shit out of it to make it all worthwhile for--hello!--the audience. (Remember us? The ones you're flattering to feel so smart and superior to the characters?) Improvised wackiness is only fun to watch if it's one of the last three skits on Saturday Night Live, when you know everybody is tired and kind of hates the dregs of the material that are left to slog through. There's no excuse for it on film. Lots of actors shouting random shit at each other and delivering lines with weird interps that are weird just for the sake of being weird isn't funny. It's just self-indulgent. And I've got no patience for it. Especially when you then layer the "quirky" Jon Brion score on top of it to indicate, "hey, lookit how quirky we're being!" ("Cue the jazz waltz orchestrated with dulcimer, concertina, and xylophone. D'ya think that'll help clarify how sensitive yet conflicted the protagonist is at this point in the movie?") Brion's on his way to becoming indie film's James Horner.
Of course the film had its moments. Jason Schwartzman on a bicycle is a beautiful thing. Jude Law remains the man--and no, it's not just because he's hot. Brutha can act. The scene in his office when Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman ask him about his family, then play him the tape of the Shania Twain story being repeated ad nauseum captures one of the most gorgeous mental and emotional transformations I've seen on screen recently. You see guilt, rage, self-loathing, and self-pity all trapped under the glass of a lifetime lived as the most popular and good-looking guy in the room. It's astounding. And, when he is given the right material, I will stand behind my conviction that Mark Wahlberg is a more compelling screen presence than almost anyone gives him credit for.
This movie is bound to blow away some 16, 17, 18 year old kids. It'll give them grist for dozens of 3 AM diner conversations and should awaken in some of them a realization of the possibilities of cinema as an art form. I'm not 16, 17, 18, though.
Ahem. Right. Or, as Nora Rocket said as the credits rolled, "four horses were in a race. These horses were the early works of Wes Anderson, Schizopolis, Richard Linklater's Slacker-era films, and a piece of shit. Unbelievably, it was a four-way tie."