David O. Russell's I ♥ Huckabees is a pop art confection. It's a sweet arrangement of surfaces that hopes, through accumulation, to suggest a deeper meaning. At a time when an increasing number of movies seem intent on getting past the literalism imposed by the visual, to get at something like the alternate reality of dreams, Huckabees takes a different tack - and that's its point: What we see is all there is.
It starts with the cast. Russell provides us with some delightful people-watching. At the center of things is Jason Schwartzman, the memorable nerd from Wes Anderson's small classic, Rushmore. Schwartzman plays an egotist who wants to think his bad poetry will be enough to stop suburban sprawl and save some wetlands. His doppelganger is Jude Law, a golden boy and public relations whiz who is empty inside. Together, they're a yin and yang of self-delusion.
Schwartzman, though, gets this on some level and so he goes to an existential detective agency and puts cosmic sleuths Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin on his case.
That's only the beginning.
Hoffman and Tomlin believe that all of life is like a blanket - everything is connected, subjects and objects are one. But just as Schwartzman is vexed by Law, they are vexed by French nihilist Isabelle Huppert who insists that nothing is connected and that cruelty is life's only meaning.
Then there's Mark Wahlberg as an unheroic firefighter and Naomi Watts as poster girl for Huckabees, the predatory retail giant where everything is for sale. Circles of appearance, in other words, within circles, within circles.
This is postmodern entertainment of a high, if predictably dry, order. Russell (whose previous work includes the antiwar ballad Three Kings) has a sharp but affectionate eye for the spiritual no man's land that lives in the vast spaces between our cities and what used to be the suburbs. It's a crowded world full of halfway decent design and nice weather that seems to run on a belief in perpetual adolescence. He also has a keen ear for the goofy ways in which we try to invent order out of the cultural chaos that is the most obvious byproduct of global capitalism.
This is a world Warhol would have loved. A world, that is, where every moral choice is compromised by the quality of the lives we're born into and where depth, rather than a key to larger meaning, is actually a dead end.
It's an aesthetically nifty conceit. The problem for us filmgoers, though, is that it doesn't make for very compelling characters. Russell's delectable cast may be great to watch at times, but they're just another form of visual architecture. With no one here to care about, the movie bogs down under its own weightlessness. There's less ♥ to Huckabees than meets the eye.