David O. Russell shows us just how funny Buddhism really is in his new film I HEART Huckabees
I am driving an Oldsmobile Alero rental up sun-drenched Mandeville Canyon, minutes away from my early-morning interview with the screenwriter-director David O. Russell, channel-surfing through his trio of features. First, Spanking the Monkey (1994), Russell’s notorious screen debut, which surfaced from nowhere with the tale of a high-strung MIT student, forced to spend a summer nursing his depressed, overmedicated mother through a leg injury, whose frequent bouts of bathroom masturbation are invariably interrupted by the family dog. Everything and nothing leads to incest, but Russell ruthlessly refuses to let us cast blame, or even settle on a victim: The protagonist’s own sexual abuse of a neighborhood girl helps send him off the deep end, literally, with a symbolic suicide leap into a watery quarry. Russell himself once described Spanking as “vile,” but it’s as honest as a backhoe, and contagiously funny in ways no synopsis can capture.
Flirting With Disaster (1996) is more obviously comedic, even if the subject is again family dysfunction: Mel (Ben Stiller) is convinced he can’t name his four-month-old son until he discovers the identity of his own birth parents, and so he embarks on a wacky bicoastal search with his nursing wife (Patricia Arquette) and a gorgeous neurotic from his parents’ adoption agency (Tea Leoni). Their hunt turns up two false parents before lighting on the “real” ones—a couple of New Age convicted felons living in the desert and manufacturing LSD (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda). Flirting is overreaching at times, but beneath its constant play for laughter lurk serious inquiries: What does it mean to be from somewhere, and part of something? Is birth itself the ultimate flirtation with disaster? And lastly, Russell’s 1999 release, Three Kings, starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube, is a heist picture set in the first Gulf War, a political action comedy turning around some fundamental ethical questions: What does it mean to kill and be killed, and when is it ever worth it?
The Westchester County born-and-raised son of a Simon and Schuster executive, and himself a poli sci and lit major at Amherst, Russell was a labor organizer in Maine and a Sandinista cultural worker in Nicaragua before launching a film career from nowhere that made him an avatar of the indie movement of the nineties. With his lefty-underground pedigree, he surprised a few people when, after the success of Flirting, he moved to L.A. to write for Warner Brothers, arguably the most conservative major studio. In Three Kings he delivered, however, a rare Hollywood product with a bottom-line leftist political agenda, then directed it with a kinetic brilliance that seemed to want to reinvent the action genre. Widely recognized as one of the best American films of the nineties, Three Kings is an anti-war war flick whose reviews and grosses (over sixty million dollars domestically) bumped its writer-director up to a new empyrean. Bill Clinton pronounced it one of the best movies of the year after a White House screening in ’99. (That same year, Russell ran into a Republican presidential candidate at a fund-raiser and told him that he had just made a film critical of his father’s Gulf War legacy. Bush the younger replied: “Then I guess I’m going to have to go finish the job, aren’t I?”)
Poised to become an industry player, the dark and twisted former indie auteurist decided that making another mega-action flick with a forty-eight-million-dollar budget was a feat he would not rush to duplicate. Five years later, still living with his wife and son in one of the funkier high-end canyons above Brentwood, still navigating his way through an era when small, offbeat pictures are typically elbowed out, he is opening a wildly offbeat new picture: I HEART Huckabees, an eighteen-million-dollar “existential comedy” about a young environmental activist who is plagued by a series of bizarre coincidences. Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) decides to give his case over to a husband-and-wife pair of “existential detectives,” the Jaffes (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), who employ close observation and guided meditation to “disassemble” Albert’s and various other people’s egos—sometimes with the aid of digitized special effects, and always to hilarious effect. Forced to examine his life, Albert focuses on his relationships and his conflict with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a slick executive moving up the corporate ladder at Huckabees, a popular chain of retail superstores. Brad ends up hiring the same detectives, who begin to dig deep into his seemingly perfect life and his relationship with his spokesmodel girlfriend, the voice of Huckabees, Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts). At the same time the Jaffes pair Albert up with another client, Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a samurai firefighter and antipetroleum nutcase. Albert and Tommy eventually take investigative matters into their own hands under the guidance of the Jaffes’ nemesis, the fiery French radical Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert).
A surrealistic, genre-busting motion picture, equal parts Zen one-liners, Pynchon-esque paranoia, and Marx Brothers anarchy, Huckabees is a laugh-out-loud comedy that insists in every frame (and sometimes in so many words) that form is emptiness, emptiness form, and that human enlightenment can only flower from the manure of human calamity. If Three Kings was Russell’s political coming-out, then Huckabees is his Buddhist revelation: a crypto-Buddhist fable and a hugely entertaining triumph of popular esoterics.
Near the top of Mandeville Canyon I veer up a steep driveway to a one-story home surrounded by flowering plants and low-hanging trees. I drive slowly, with my car door open to grab two copies of the L.A. Times from the asphalt, then park the Alero next to a Volvo V70XC with “John Kerry for President,” “Recall Bush,” and “War Is Not the Answer” bumper stickers.
David answers the doorbell with bedhead. He’s wearing a pair of blue-checked pajamas. I have the strongest feeling I’ve met him before.