I ♥ Huckabees

Somehow I don’t think old Martin Heidegger, the godfather of existentialism, was a very funny guy. A philosophy based on the absurdity of love and the inevitability of alienation and death is hardly cheerful stuff.
But I was ready to go beyond Being and Nothingness in the new film I ♥ Huckabees, billed as an existential comedy.
After all, the trailers for the film showed it to be a quirky, smart little comedy, sort of a cross between Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker's Guide and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich, and I’ve always been fond of nothing in particular, especially nihilism.  And take note: There is a lot of nothing going on in I ♥ Huckabees.
Huckabees wants to be smart, but it just hasn’t done its homework. Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a project coordinator for an open space committee, and firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg) turn to the Existential Detectives when they’ve reached their intellectual and emotional limits, a sort of faux crisis of consciousness. Albert writes bad poetry, you see, and Tommy is a violent jerk.
The detectives – Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) – follow Albert and Tommy around, taking cryptic notes in their spiral-bound notebooks, and spouting a philosophy that sounds more like quantum physics (by way of Deepak Chopra) than existentialism. The detectives seem to be interested in dispelling the idea of coincidence or showing connectedness between objects and people or something. I really don’t know.
Albert’s foil Brad Stand (Jude Law), a young sales rep, also turns to the Jaffes, saying that he feels he needs to be liked by everyone. Brad and Albert work together on the open spaces committee, but Albert is far more interested in media representations than poetry, and the two grate on one another.
When the Jaffes begin going through Albert’s house they meet his fiancé Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), the “voice” of the Huckabees super-store chain where Albert also works, who almost immediately thereafter shows signs of a unhealthy fetish for Danish hats after talking with the private dicks. Thus is the miraculous power of existential therapy!
At this point in the film, you begin to wonder who came up with the title and what the heck these people think existentialism is, so Bernard describes a unified field to confirm that the film is a sloppy intellectual landmine. Albert and Tommy hit each other with big red balls, trying to reduce themselves down to pure objects, being in itself (or for itself or around itself, refer to Heidegger’s Existence and Being for further confusion), to lend some sense of philosophical absurdity to the film, but the scene mostly works because it seems so silly.
Even the appearance of an evil nihilist femme fatal, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), can’t rescue this frivolous little film from feeling contrived and dumb. These weird supernatural characters – the detectives and Vauban – are reminiscent of daytime television for kids, and there’s a distinctive Mr. Snuffalufagus quality to Bernard, as though we can’t really trust that he’s real.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why Huckabees is so lackluster. On the one hand, the cast does a fabulous job at portraying very shallow characters and the dialog is often silly enough to be funny. The plot leaves plenty of room for characters to shuffle around and Hoffman and Tomlin are amusing as the mysterious and frumpy detectives.
The unrelenting stupidity of the philosophical rants and the insipidness of the psychobabble are grating in a bad Woody Allen sort of way and the film has the stink of a New Age bookstore lingering around its edges. These shortcomings wear away at Huckabees’ ironic cynicism like a corrosive acid until the movie dissolves into a sort of murky, intellectual eggnog.
The humor isn’t intellectual, it’s physical, and the film is really only funny when it shuts up and shows how silly superficial people look when they pretend to be profound. The inane one-liners that pass for revelation in the film are quite good and the acting is engaging, but the film just spirals out of control attached to the weirdest, most wrong-headed philosophical interpretations this side of Richard’s Gere’s take on Buddhism.  
Huckabees is manifestly dumb; dumb-in-itself; dumb-in-the-world; dumb-for-others; dumb, dumb, dumb. And dumb, friends, isn’t very funny.


Team America: World Police

Trey Parker and Matt Stone want you to hate puppets.

Parker and Stone are the big brains behind the animated series South Park, and their newest film Team America: World Police runs like the worst episodes of that franchise, lacking charm, humor or a coherent plot line. What it offers instead is clichés on strings, gross-out gags of the lowest grade, and scenes so stupid that they even lack the honest ability to offend.

Rather than using animated characters, the pair has relied on marionettes to carry their newest film. This is primarily because they want you to leave the theater after watching Team America, return to your homes and burn all your puppets, action figures and dolls. They lie in bed thinking of different ways to make you want to harm G.I. Joe and Barbie, and they mostly succeed in this dreadful, nasty piece of work.

What other explanation can there be? It can’t be that difficult to draw the South Park characters can it?

The plot is thinner than a comic book. When Team America loses a member, it recruits actor Gary Johnston, a rising star on Broadway, to try to infiltrate terrorist networks. A worldwide plan emerges as the group pursues WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) across the globe. Although Gary is new to the challenges of being a member of an international special forces team and faces his own personal demons, he and busty puppet Sarah are drawn to one another as an excuse to show dolls having sex.

Ostensibly the story of a crass American special forces unit, Team America is actually an exercise in kitsch comedy from a creative team that appears stuck in the 1970s and early 80s. The puppets look like the unholy marriage of Davy and Goliath and the plot plays like an episode of the A-Team.

While we may find the occasional life-like movement or expression of a puppet particularly effective, the joke’s on us if we admit to actually liking them. Trey and Matt have used these ugly creatures as camp objects of derision in the same way the film Joe Dirt used muscle cars. They are straw men strung up for us to burn down, and I pity the fool who empathizes with a dummy.

We are suppose to snicker as the team goes after international terrorists or faces hostile foreign leaders like leader Kim Jong Il, not only because the situations are so darn funny – as when Michael Moore storms Team America’s stronghold, hotdog stains smeared across his face, and detonates a bomb strapped to his chest – but also because, heheh, ha, erm, because we’re watching dumb puppets!

Puppets pretending to be real people, reminding us how phony films are, how totally fake everything is even when it’s presented as serious.

This tactic means everything is fair game in the film, but it also robs any astonishment that might come from the puppetry or identifications with the characters, and cutting any ties we might have to the characters means that the audience feels very little attachment toward the film. The plot is a rehash of bad television shows, the dialog is more stiff and wooden than the puppets that have to speak it, and the jokes mostly involve dolls doing gross things.

The problem is that it’s really not that funny. Granted, there’s a horrific quality to seeing inanimate objects behave like humans, but the filmmakers’ wink-and-nod approach to the puppets sort of spoils the gross-out scenes. While earlier, awful films like Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles presented puppets as squirting, undulating beings with real (unpleasant) appetites, Team America’s puppets appear simultaneously less organic and yet more emotive. It’s as though human souls were imprisoned in wood, which is far creepier than amusing.

An extended vomit scene, for example, is actually more stupid than gross. Likewise, puppet sex is even less exciting (or funny) than you might imagine. You have a feeling that the genius who came up with the idea of having marionettes perform the Karma Sutra is congratulating himself for reproducing what basically every child of eight or nine did with G.I. Joe and Barbie.

But here’s the real point of the film. The liftoff scene is essentially a remake of the sort of commercials we lived through on Saturday mornings, waiting for Super Friends or Electra Woman and Dyna Girl to begin. Team America is a catharsis of the worst sort, a kind of revenge film created by grown geeks who’ve never come to grips with the fact that they didn’t get Big Jim’s action adventure set in the 1970s.

We shouldn’t be happy that these guys were denied a Six-Million Dollar Man doll when they were nine, but we don’t have to reward them for holding on to all that juvenile hatred either. They must not win: We need to save the puppets!

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