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|Posted: Sun Oct 03, 2004 9:24 am Post subject: King of 'Heart'
|King of 'Heart'
David O. Russell succeeded in making his existential comedy into a reality
By Wesley Morris, Globe Staff | October 3, 2004
More than one profile of David O. Russell has gone out of its way to question the filmmaker's sanity. Depending on where you get your celebrity news, the director of "Flirting With Disaster" and "Three Kings" is prone to tantrums, fistfights, nervous breakdowns, insults, mood swings, and general disagreeableness. So if a word of this is even true -- and, frankly, the entire description could apply to any number of directors, chefs, or hockey dads -- the best time to catch Russell would seem to be early in the morning when he's a little jet lagged. For now, he seems sane enough
A few years ago, however, Russell was addled. He'd started writing a script. He knew what it would be about (meditation) and who, roughly, would be in the movie (Mark Wahlberg, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Tomlin). It was based in part on the four years he'd spent attending a Zen meditation center in Manhattan, an experience he enjoyed quite a bit. He thought it would make, as he
puts it, a great hub for the movie that would become "I Huckabees," which opens Friday. "Bankers, lawyer, janitors, doctors would arrive at this place for an investigation of consciousness," he says, slumped in a chair, his suit wrinkled, his striped shirt rumpled, his hair long and unruly in a dozen different ways.
How does one give an investigation of consciousness color, shape, a beginning, middle, and end? Popular culture is rampant with investigations, but mostly of crime scenes, and by sexy medical crews and special-victim units. But Russell wanted to make a movie that supposes a forensics of the soul. A person with no sense of spiritual direction, no sense of who he is or what being constitutes, is plunged, according to certain Eastern philosophies, into inner lawlessness and disorder, making him the ultimate special victim.
Ready to explore this, Russell was all set to shoot the picture. The cast had been assembled, a crew hired. Schwartzman, a seasoned musician, had even started working on a score. Then, one morning at 4, he got a call from Russell.
"He didn't seem tired," Schwartzman recalls. "He sounded like a man who had been up all night and was still going. And he goes, `I'm going to be very straight with you. I'm not going to make the movie.' He said, `We're not going to make the movie because I promised myself I would only make movies I feel 100 percent about, and that, most importantly, I'm only going to have a good time making. And I just don't feel like this is the one.' "
The problem was that Russell just didn't know how the darned thing would end. Schwartzman thinks this was a huge transitional moment for the filmmaker, to be honest enough to know that his movie lacked a reason for being. But more crucially, it was the moment Schwartzman, who's an energetic 24-year-old, realized, "David Russell is the man! That was the most brave and courageous thing for him to do. I will do anything for this man because he has displayed the utmost, highest level of artistic integrity."
So, after 18 months of struggle, Russell put the script away and went to sleep. He slept on the idea, off and on, until the right dream came along.
In his dream, he was being followed by a woman, a detective, who wanted to see where he was going and what he was up to. "For metaphysical reasons," he says. From this came the completion of "I Huckabees," which the movie's maker (and its studio, Fox Searchlight) sincerely describes as an existential comedy, leaving it up to anyone reporting this news to supply their own skeptical quotation marks.
But "I Huckabees" does investigate consciousness -- several consciousnesses in fact -- and it is a comedy. It's a very good, very busy one that bravely hitches Buddhist tenets of completion and oneness to the surrealist trapdoors of Luis Bunuel and the culture of therapy (though that word turns one of the movie's characters violent).
Describing "Huckabees" can be like trying to gracefully accept an Oscar in less than 30 seconds, but it's about Albert (Schwartzman), a young environmentalist who seeks the help of two existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Tomlin) in solving a series of personal coincidences. They wind up pairing him with Tommy (Wahlberg), a firefighter who's going through an existential crisis of his own. Isabelle Huppert shows up as a rival, nihilist detective. Jude Law plays Albert's nemesis, the owner of the Target-esque Huckabees. Naomi Watts has the role of Law's girlfriend and the company's poster child. And the name of country megastar Shania Twain is dropped more often than Jim Carrey's pants at the MTV Movie Awards.
Any Buddhist could probably tell you how it all turns out, and any surrealist would say you'll have to see for yourself. As for Russell, he thinks the movie represents a form of tonal audacity. "It's unpretentious, and yet it is serious about these ideas and it dares to be optimistic."
Long before his years at the Manhattan zendo, the kernel for all this was planted when Russell, now 46, was a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst under the auspices of religious philosophy professor Bob Thurman (Uma's dad and currently the religious studies head at Columbia University).
As supplemental material for "Huckabees," Russell shot a fake infomercial starring Thurman, whom Russell persuaded to debate a physics professor, along with Hoffman and Tomlin, in character as the detectives. "It's funny, but they get down," Russell says. In it, they argue about the 10th dimension, which is the great "don't go there" debate between spiritualists and physicists that threatens to destroy -- or expand -- a conventional reality of three or four dimensions. It all leaves you curious about who among the general public is eager for such a movie. That's the type of question that makes Russell impatient.
"I'm not a polling guy or a beer company," the director says. "I have to make what appeals to me from my heart. I'll just bet with the curiosity of the audience. If it's funny and it's original, then there's an audience for it." You, the paying customer, will have to trust Russell the director to provoke and entertain you.
Russell, who was raised in New York City, didn't start his movie career until he was in his 30s. At Amherst, he wrote his honors essay on Chile. He spent some of his 20s doing grass-roots activist work for the Massachusetts Fair Share Development Corporation, a defunct nonprofit group run out of Worcester that campaigned to help people reduce their energy costs.
He did more activist work in the South End of Boston at the Cardinal Cushing Center, which is now called El Centro del Cardenal, a self-empowerment social-services agency for native Spanish speakers. This is where Russell first picked up a camera. He made a 13-minute documentary about the Central Americans he taught to write English, called "Panama to Boston." That activist streak is still in evidence. He recently made a short documentary about the current war in Iraq that he plans to release before the election. "It's just talking heads," he says. "But it still makes a very compelling case." Warner Bros. refused to include it with its preelection DVD rerelease of "Three Kings," a move Russell finds eerily similar to one the Huckabees corporation tries to pull on Schwartzman's character in his movie.
But one of the benefits of Russell's apparent inner peace -- or his current becalmed disposition, anyway -- is that he's gotten quite good at putting things in their proper perspective.
"The infinite interconnection should mean that we've had this conversation an infinite number of times. I've been you, you've been me, because infinity means infinity," he says. "That should actually relax you and reassure you because it makes you feel it's not just my limited situation, with my stress. Like any mind-expanding idea, it should release you in some way. That's my main beef with some religions or schools of thought: If it makes your mind more rigid and less open, what good is it?"
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org