The Unbearable Lightness of Being

David O. Russell gets to the ♥ of the matter with an existential farce and a Gulf War II doc

For its maker, Huckabees is an attempt to synthesize years of existential inquiry into a personal comic cosmology—drawing on "stuff that I've been intrigued with since I read Franny and Zooey, and since I met Bob Thurman [the Buddhist scholar and father of Uma] at Amherst College. I like that Eastern philosophy never had a witch-burning phase, a missionary phase." But, he adds, "the film was about taking these ideas and creating a whole universe. It's not saying, this is Buddhist or this is French; it creates its own vernacular." The film's philosophers symbolize thinkers or theories that have affected him: Tomlin's character is based on an old analyst, Hoffman's on Thurman, while Huppert's represents a confluence of French existentialism and Zen that expresses a key viewpoint of the film, namely that we vacillate between "human drama" and "pure being." (In I Huckabees, "pure being" is attained via a literal, consciousness-altering smack to the head with a giant ball.) "Our brains work well as creatures of habit, but to get to a deeper truth, it's good to get knocked out of it sometimes," Russell says. "And people can do that in meditation or sex or drugs or music or sports—places where people shift to a different brain."

Walking an improbable tightrope, Huckabees takes deep philosophical matters seriously but never takes itself all that seriously. "My models are Duchamp and Magritte and all their colleagues," Russell says, adding that the tone of the film simply reflects the spirit in which he's inclined to approach philosophy—"very intensively but with a lot of humor. Most of it is from the rollicking open feeling of reading ancient scriptures with Bob [Thurman]." The ♥ in the title is an oblique nod to the famous Milton Glaser design, which enjoyed renewed popularity after September 11: "It's ironic about Huckabees and also sincere in the end," he says.

Subverting with disaster: Russell on the Huckabees set
photo: Claudette Barius
Subverting with disaster: Russell on the Huckabees set

Is a film that poses so many questions obliged to provide at least a few answers? It could be argued that Huckabees' insistence on the inadequacy of any one school of thought goes right to the core of existentialism. Russell says the movie is more mapped out than it appears. Dovetailing toward a conclusion was "like getting ready to jump off a cliff," he says. "I didn't want it to end in a blank or negative way—I felt that was a risk. After having the characters struggle this much, so consciously for so long, I couldn't. But we can be in the same situation and feel very differently about it. You move an inch and that's a great distance sometimes." He adds: "I think that's the most daring thing about this movie—its optimism and its joy."

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