I Heart “I Heart Huckabees”

Whether or not you take philosophy seriously is going to decide your opinion of David O. Russell’s new movie “I Heart Huckabees.” If you feel discussions of true being and the nature of reality require book-long tracts, skip this movie and go read some Kant. But if you like playing fast and loose with words like “infinite” and often find yourself explaining the philosophical implications of Hungry Hungry Hippos (“They just keep eating!”), this is the movie for you.

The plot of “I Heart Huckabees” concerns Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), an angsty environmentalist who enlists two “existential detectives” (played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to help him find out why he keeps running into the same doorman. Markovski signs a contract that gives the detectives free reign to spy on him all hours of the day, except when he’s at work, where he runs a coalition aimed at saving a marsh from being bulldozed. Two “existential detectives” snooping around wouldn’t look good. The two detectives, of course, follow him to work the next day and begin to analyze everything in his life except the reoccurring doorman.

To reveal much more would ruin the movie’s many surprises and strange turns, but I will say the rest of the movie involves a firefighter obsessed with the world’s petroleum problem, a beautiful French nihilist, a bonnet-wearing model and a Huckabees department store executive who keeps telling the same Shania Twain story.

If that all sounds a little wacky, it’s because “wacky” is something “I Heart Huckabees” isn’t afraid to be. But the movie’s strength comes from its willingness to get down and dirty with philosophy, politics, sex and literally anything else that feels like coming up. At one point Albert and the above mentioned firefighter Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) hit each other with rubber balls to achieve “pure being” during the moment their brains are reacting to the pain. The concept is silly, until you realize that Catholic monks have been whipping themselves for centuries to achieve inner peace. In another scene, Tommy tells two Christian teenagers that Jesus hates them because they use petroleum. The scene is played for laughs but we can see in Tommy’s eyes he wants the kids to realize their moral obligation to the world extends beyond just having Jesus in their hearts.

It is this very earnestness that makes “I Heart Huckabees” so refreshing. Instead of satirizing the pretensions of his characters, Russell gives us people trying to use ideas to save themselves, however abstract those ideas may be. For him, philosophy is the lens we use to view the world and if we don’t keep trying on new glasses, we’re cheating ourselves. And while he gives us no solutions at the end, we know the characters are far from doomed. They’re going to keep doing what they’ve done the entire film: get angry, start asking questions, get half-answers and get angry all over again. Just like the rest of us.