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“Every great philosophy so far,” wrote Nietzsche, “has been…the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” By that measure, Hollywood’s new philosophical comedies disclose meager autobiographies. In the films written by Charlie Kaufman, Wes Anderson, and David O. Russell, most of the defining issues could come from a high-school guidance counselor’s casebook: girlfriends, Mom and Dad, unfulfilled potential. And if writer-director Russell’s latest, I § Huckabees, were a note sent home for signing, it would read, “Does not work well with others.”
That’s the fundamental problem of protagonist Albert (Rushmore star and former Phantom Planet drummer Jason Schwartzman), a bad poet and failed environmentalist. Albert is one of the organizers of the disorganized Open Spaces Coalition, which has set out to preserve a wetland area in a Los Angeles–like city characterized by flat lighting and mostly neutral colors. Albert’s quest—as well as his band of followers—has been co-opted by Brad (Jude Law), the unctuous PR flack for big-box retailer Huckabees. (The company seems to be half Wal-Mart’s crushing dominance, half Target’s mass-market hipness.) Rather than deal directly with his problem, Albert becomes distracted by a series of coincidental sightings of a young, very tall Sudanese man. To decipher the import of these meetings, Albert hires a pair of detectives, meticulous Vivian and moptopped Bernard (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman). These are not just any old gumshoes, of course: They’re “existential detectives.”
Yes, I § Huckabees is a cannonball dive into Kaufman territory, where the absurdity of life is exemplified by zany professional services. Rather than investigate other people, existential detectives track their own clients. This procedure furnishes some slapstick opportunities, especially for Tomlin, but otherwise makes no sense, given that, at their first meeting, Bernard tells Albert the sum total of the investigators’ insight: that everything in life is connected, like the individual points on a blanket. (Vivian and Bernard—not to mention Russell—seem to have mistaken pop psychology for philosophy—a recurrent problem in California.)
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Vivian and Bernard’s most troublesome client is Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), an ecology-sensitized fireman who has renounced the use of petroleum fuels. But they’re about to be hired by another problem case: none other than Brad, whose new interest in self-analysis soon undermines the worldview of his live-in girlfriend, vapid Huckabees spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile, Albert and Tommy encounter Vivian and Bernard’s former student and current nemesis, Caterine (Isabelle Huppert). Being French, Caterine believes in sex, cruelty, and nothingness.
Is that it? Well, not narratively. Russell and co-scripter Jeff Baena load up the story with self-consciously wacky moments and more supporting characters than you could shake a family tree at. (Talia Shire, Schwartzman’s mother, plays Albert’s mother, and the director’s son also has a small role.) Albert and Tommy have dinner with a far-right Christian family whose patriarch considers oil “God’s gift,” Albert and Caterine make out in an Adaptation-knockoff swamp, and Brad keeps telling an anecdote about Shania Twain until it finally pays off (albeit modestly). The various characters eventually realign and reassess, although not in ways that suggest anything other than the fact that the movie is almost over. Ultimately, I § Huckabees isn’t as exhausting as Russell’s last film, Three Kings, but it does offer a similar mix of overreaching ambition and underdeveloped themes.
One reason that I § Huckabees is such a motley affair is the jarring array of performances. The unreliable Wahlberg is here persuasively obsessive, and Tomlin and Hoffman are fun. But Schwartzman seems even more shallow than his character, and Watts and Law are way off: Her hysteria is forced, and his accent, while not exactly British, is too soft to be American. (At one point, Russell goes to the trouble of establishing that Brad is from Cleveland, though the character should have added, “but I went to boarding school in Geneva.”) As for Huppert, well, she really isn’t given much to do, but she embodies the movie Russell would clearly like to make—if only he were French. Or genuinely philosophical. Or, for that matter, just a little smarter.
“The personal is political,” insisted feminists some 30 years ago, offering another take on individuality and how we express it. But that credo turned out to underestimate the rapid progress of American narcissism. These days, the personal is simply everything: If a tree falls in the forest, it doesn’t make a sound unless it hits you, someone you know, or someone you’ve seen on TV.
The very much conscious memoirist Ross McElwee has played a small role in the evolution of contemporary self-absorption, but to his credit, it’s a wry one. Though the Charlotte, N.C.–bred, Boston-based filmmaker has always observed the world pretty much exclusively through the prism of his own experience, at least he has a sense of humor about it. Indeed, the new Bright Leaves fails to rival his most well-known earlier films, 1986’s Sherman’s March and 1994’s Time Indefinite, in part because it includes less of him—and therefore less of the self-deprecating wit demonstrated in the former’s subtitle: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.
Although Bright Leaves is about all kinds of things, it starts with a man who is connected to, yet remote from, the director: McElwee’s great-grandfather. John Harvey McElwee was an also-ran tobacco magnate, the creator of the Durham Bull brand and the man who lost out to the Duke clan, whose name survives in a famous university and other Carolina institutions. According to Ross’ movie-buff cousin, Great Granddad was also the inspiration for a novel, Bright Leaf, that was adapted into a feature film. Although the 1950 flick is not widely remembered, that’s not because it was a lesser project in its time: It starred Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, and Patricia Neal, and was directed by Casablanca’s Michael Curtiz.
North Carolina history and its celluloid reflection provide plenty of material for McElwee, but they eventually lead to another topic: mortality. Neal is still alive and willing to talk (briefly) about Bright Leaf and Cooper, “the love of my life.” McElwee’s grandfather and father, however, like most of the stars of the ’50s, survive only as images: The two doctors are shown in home-movie footage. That leads to the next generation, in the form of the director’s son, Adrian, who’s seen aging from toddler to preadolescent—and in his older incarnation seems much more interested in filmmaking than family history.
Mortality and tobacco also go together, as the director ponders between interviews with farmers and puffers. Charleen Swansea, McElwee’s former high-school English teacher and longtime cinematic companion, takes him to the grave of her sister, who “committed suicide with cigarettes.” Yet some Carolinians keep smoking, of course, and a few even deny that there’s a connection between tobacco farming and cancer deaths—although those denials no longer make any pretense to being scientific. The declining stature of the state’s most famous crop is reflected in the 50th and last North Carolina Tobacco Festival—the next time, it’ll be the Farmers Day Parade.
These developments will likely be more compelling to smokers and ex-smokers than to those who have never inhaled. But McElwee still has one more chapter, which connects his wanderings and musings to Bright Leaf and his family’s history. Because this sequence is his big finish, its contents won’t be revealed here. Suffice it to say that, as big finishes go, it’s not all that big. In fact, the movie’s last 10 minutes are a little deflating.
Still, the rest of Bright Leaves again demonstrates McElwee’s skills as an editor, cinematographer, and storyteller. (The only technical failing is the harshly sibilant “s” sounds of the filmmaker’s narration, a problem that may not affect all the movie’s prints or screenings.) His films are folksy yet more neatly structured than is initially apparent. Though the family connection to Bright Leaf doesn’t pay off as expected, it does guide McElwee to historical revelations and filial reflections more profound than the mythmaking of any Hollywood biopic. If Bright Leaves is not his best work, it’s still strong evidence that chronicling the universe in the first person can yield complex, empathetic narratives.CP