2004: The Year in Movies

A Final Word on Huckabees
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2005 12:31 PM

2004: The Year in Movies

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Gang,

I'm coming down with something, so I won't stay long.

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I'd to pick up the class string in Scott's very good reading of Spanglish (the dialogue this movie is producing here on Slate and out in the world is amazing; its strengths and flaws, I think, are evenly divided enough to produce a real conversation on a subject that, alas, is so much bigger than Brook's movie) and connect it to I [Heart] Huckabees, which Tony is right to find so limited.

I've been trying to put my finger on what's been bugging me about Huckabees, whose gangbustersness I still really admire. What bugs me is the privileged lifestyle place you'd need to have reached in order to entertain these thoughts about human beings and society, the thoughts being both nothing is everything and everything is everything. This is a rarefied level of philosophical engagement, both old-school in the extreme (Existentialism! Nihilism! The list goes on!) and totally post-a-lot-of-things. The crises in Huckabees lack function; they're what happens when the form truly falls out from under a life.

So many people's characterization of the film as being about David O. Russell's liberal angst is true. But the movie's shortcoming is that it's shortsighted. Class is so obviously a conscious part of this movie (the "good" Christian family that takes in the Sudanese Lost Boy; the joke that is Wahlberg's fireman character; the pseudo-abolition of difference captured in the Huckabees globalist mantra: "One world, one store"). But I wonder how these things would have played in a movie where people had no money: "Hey, lady. You've just been bounced from your job two weeks before all your bills are due and you live from paycheck to paycheck, but in the scheme of things your problems mean nothing!"

I just would like to have seen one character who really struggles in life (and has real-life everyday struggles) struggle with these larger questions. I mean Russell, sincere as his movie is, is obviously up for some satire: He has fake existential crises and shows Wahlberg's Tommy strung out on "being," then strung out on pain or whatever he and Albert are whacking themselves in the face about. So why not have a highly skeptical, underclass convert at least soberly question the real value of these ideas so that when he reaches it, his achievement really means something?

Two very smart people who didn't like the movie told me at a party that they found Huckabees as insufferably narcissistic as Charlie Kaufman, whose narcissism I love because there's real, tender, human worry and doubt driving it. And you could argue that his movies are socially detached, that they exist in some "other America," but it's about a state of being any lonely person can understand. Russell doesn't do lonely. He does entitled, and so they were thinking "Kaufman."

I was thinking Buñuel, for good and ill. Now there's someone whose movie of Russell's movie would feature the comic deaths of all the characters, in amused exasperation. His movies implicitly took on the issue in Huckabees by saying of the bored-boring-self-obsessed bourgeoisie that "everything might be nothing, but look, the trash still has to get taken out." Russell's world is like Buñuel's with an earnest, straight face. The movie's surrealism flows with the characters, not against them.

Regarding Movie Club, I didn't expect things to take so many bewildering turns or for a generational shitstorm to kick up. Armond, I've been chafed, though hardly surprised, by your takedowns and put-downs. Do you realize your claim, more or less, that older is better just because it's older is crazy? My perception of movies, my sensibility, as it were, is the product of more than my so-called youth. Regardless, according to your subjective, qualitative formula, if "x" is less than "y," what happens when the variables are ascribed to race or gender or sexual orientation, and not merely age? Suddenly, Armond's assessment begins to resemble something a lot more dangerous than mere curmudgeonly sniping.

I'm reminded of something Pauline Kael once said about a critic: His "race-based approach to movies is more than challenging—it can be unnerving. Often when I start one of his pieces I think he's way out of line, but when I go further I see that he's onto something. He's one of the few writers on popular culture who rouse a reader to do fresh thinking." She was talking about a young Armond, who now sees fit to treat his young peers with a cynical condescension. You mentor, you! 

And Armond, if you can believe this, I also love A Thousand Clouds of Peace. It's palpably forlorn. I just think Bad Education went deeper and brought Almodóvar's entire filmography to bear, and it doesn't make me any less a fashion victim to say so than your wheeling out refried DePalma to debunk Almódovar.  

Chris, I'm all for your fight for "smaller" movies, but we should see these movies before extensive coverage, otherwise we don't know what exactly we're fighting for beyond the theoretical, and there's nothing more anathema to newspapers than theory. (That said, I give nothing away in saying that Notre Musique is more than worth your time—and space. I wish we could've talked about it more, and how a bunch of other European and Asian movies dealt with modern history while ours keep looking the other way!)

Anyway, thank you, sincerely, David, for inviting me. It's been surreal having my head knocked with Scott's by Stephanie Zacharek and seeing Charley's dander so intelligently erect. And thanks to Bryan Curtis for making us look good and to all the Slate readers out there for being so passionately engaged.

Wesley

David Edelstein isSlate's film critic. Scott Foundas is a film critic for LA Weekly. Christopher Kelly is a film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe. A.O. Scott is a film critic for the New York Times. Charles Taylor is a film critic for Salon. Armond White is the film critic for the New York Press. Stephanie Zacharek is a film critic for Salon.