Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lilies of the Field Lawn

This post is a contribution to the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon hosted by Film of the Year

"Have you ever transcended space and time?" -Vivian Jaffe
"Yes. No. Time, not space --no, I don't know what you're talking about" -Albert Markovski
I Heart Huckabees (2004)

OK. Let's start with space. Cross this lawn.

It's a simple enough action for a filmmaker to choreography and capture: have your actor run across the screen. But for David O' Russell, the writer/director behind the brilliant I Heart Huckabees, there's nothing simple that can't be made hilariously unwieldy. Let's add the zig-zag spray of a sprinkler system for the antagonist. Lily Tomlin in a powder blue suit plays protagonist. She'll begin the scene all spy-like, hiding behind a tree with white gloves gesturing to her husband Bernard to follow close behind. Then she'll make a dash for it...

The camera has to jerk and dart a little to keep up with her awkward spray-dodging techniques. She crouches down. She adjusts her speed. She hops.

She does all of this in stilleto heels.

And she gets hit full spray. It's physical comedy - whaddya want?

One of Huckabees recurring visual motifs is a grid-like collapse of the screen, pieces fall off to reveal another image underneath. It's mostly used as a way to illustrate Bernard and Vivian's theories about everything being connected; everything different is the same. It's also a spot-on visual embodiment of the layering of comedy. Like all jokes in Huckabees this one has an extra layer or four.
Sprinkler. Tomlin. Costuming. Physical Comedy. And for an extra giggle: this extremely verbose character suddenly has a monosyllabic potty mouth.

But we're still not quite finished. The laughs in this blissfully funny smart movie are never simple. Huckabees has an inimitable sense of humor and O'Russell and his game actors add new punchlines every time the jokes seem to have peaked. The gags build on each other, gathering momentum. For instance, Hoffman will now follow Tomlin across the lawn and try to step over the jet sprays instead. Even the purely physical gags get funnier after they're over; punctuated as they are with intellectual and physical exclamation points.

Vivian dives into a garbage can and empties its contents for the existential investigation.

"Look at this: Kafka! He's planting garbage for us" -Vivian
"Kafka. That's so cliché" -Bernard Jaffe

Despite O'Russell's notorious onset tussles with cast members from George Clooney (Three Kings) to Lily Tomlin (previous post), he knows just how to cast actors and make the most of their specific gifts. Huckabees gets tremendous mileage from Wahlberg's man boy sensitivity, Jude Law's golden god status, and Naomi Watts's overemphatic intensity. And I'd argue that he gives Lily Tomlin her best role since Robert Altman immortalized her in Nashville during the "I'm Easy" musical number, presenting her in one of the cinema's greatest closeups. Even the slapstick classic All of Me with Steven Martin didn't make use of all of her gifts (Martin got most of the physical comedy in that one).

Tomlin's physical antics in Huckabees (she also dives into cars, lustfully makes out with her husband, crouches in hallways, and plays peeping tom several times over) are a hoot in and of themselves but they're made sillier because the actress and her character are so entirely... so purposefully conspicuous. Lily with her serious face flirtatiously delivering unsexy absurdities and Vivian's costuming choices (stilletos, cleavage cutaways) --well, this woman couldn't get lost in a crowd.

Why was she trying to cross that lawn with stealth, anyway? For her very next move she dives (loudly) into a garbage can and then she enters the house she's spying on and begins to snap photos of its residents in their full view.

This knowingly absurd film is an extremely rare thing: a comedy with true staying power and after-giggles. It's one of the only comedies that's as funny to think about afterwards as is it to actually screen. I heart Huckabees and Lily Tomlin, too.

for more slapstick go to Film of the Year
related: I Heart Huckabees top ten of 2004 (yes, I wish it was higher)


Anonymous said...

Hilarious movie...loved it...

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. It's a brilliant film. I love how they even manage to throw in bits of slapstick. Good post!

Anonymous said...

hilarious i had to bash my funny bone with a hammer to amke sure it worked,when russell climbs out of his arse then perhaps i'll find his films fun if it wasn't for mark wahlberg being the only identifiable human character i would have jumped through a window!!!! maybe tomlin would like russell to do that if she has to work with him again,one of 04's worst films but one of the top 5 best supp actor perfs so there u go.

Anonymous said...

And I heart this post, too. Huckabees is simply one of the best films of the '00s. It's that simple, although the film is wonderfully and exhileratingly complex.

Anonymous said...

Tomlin is one of my all-time faves.

You don't want to forget her performance in Nine To Five. I couldn't take my eyes off of her.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Nat. I must watch this again. It works on so many levels.

Something not picked up in many reviews when it came out was that Russell is a practising Buddhist and the movie makes a lot of "sense" from a Buddhist perspective.

Reading your post about the movie, I was reminded of the classic lines from the Heart Sutra, a key Buddhist text: "Form is only emptiness. Emptiness only form." Pretty much sums up the movie for me!

Jason Adams said...

Nat, you've inspired me to pull this DVD out and watch it right this second; I haven't seen it since the theater. Lily's such a genius, I wish she worked more. Like, she should be in every fifth movie made. Can you make that happen? Please?

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

A lovely lovely movie that was disdturbingly underappreciated back in 2004 - but I bet you its reputation will only grow. It improves upon further viewings.

Lily Tomlin was genius in it, no doubt, as was Hoffman - but what really struck me was that actors I normally dislike (violently) like Naomi Watts and Jude Law also impressed me mightily.


yes. and everyone gets better in it the more you watch --it's pretty shocking to watch a movie in which Isabelle Huppert gives one of the lesser performances.

that's just wrong.

adam k. said...

I don't think it needed to be higher, I liked it at #9. But then, 2004 was a great year. I personally would've nominated:

1) Eternal Sunshine
2) Spider-Man 2
3) The Incredibles
4) Before Sunset

...with Dogville, Sideways, and others jockeying for spot #5. But I'm thinking maybe it'd just go to Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring once I've seen that.

Didn't get all the fuss over Vera Drake, outside of Imelda Staunton.

Anyway, it is sad, though, that Huckabee's didn't get the globe-comedy best pic nom and original screenplay oscar nom that it so richly deserved. Not to mention the perfs of both Mark Wahlberg and Jude Law.

And (in a semi-unrelated note) can we offically stop beating up on Naomi Watts, now, Nathaniel? She's been GREAT in Mulholland and damn good in Huckabee's, Kong, and Painted Veil, proving she can run the gamut from auteurs to action to comedy to costume drama. It's not her fault her one oscar nod came from a perf that got destroyed in the editing room (21 Grams).


wait. how was i beating on her? i think she's terrific in I Heart Huckabees. and she IS emphatically intense as an actor is she not? Even those who love her should agree. Everybody has their persona. for better and worse

i said kind things about Watts in TANK GIRL, THE PAINTED VEIL, KING KONG and MULHOLLAND DRIVE ... and that's as far as I'm going until EASTERN PROMISES opens, ya hear ? ;)


oh and if i was redoing that top ten HUCKABEES would move up to #6 or #7

Joe Thompson said...

Nathaniel: I'm adding this to the list of movies I've read about in the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon that I have to see. I like your descriptions and analysis.

Joe Thompson ;0)

adam k. said...

Oh I don't know, there was a period when you beat up on her a lot. Like when you threatened to take away her gold medal and give it to Nicole. And when you kept making fun of how much she screams in 21 Grams.

To be fair, I was cool on her for a while, too, so perhaps I'm merely projecting my own issues onto you. But I'm pretty sold on her as of now. I think she's emerged as one of the Premier Actresses of the Aughts. Can't wait for Need.

Anonymous said...

watts i can take or leave thought she was great in the ring and good in mullholland dvd in 1 scene in particular she was great in the painted eil lasyt year but grating in le divorce & i heart huckabess,21 grams i di notl ike either although del toro was good,watts i felt was better in her quiet moments instead of all the f*** words and the murdering the man who killed her children was too silly i think she should have had the sory strand on her own and never met penn,i don't disagree with her nom and can see why i have far more trouble in 93 with keaton,morton and hughes,morton because she is committing cat fraud,paltrow,connely,johansson & wood deserved the 4 places they gave to keaton,hughes,watts & morton.

Anonymous said...

"it's pretty shocking to watch a movie in which Isabelle Huppert gives one of the lesser performances."

Darling, Ms. Huppert does not give lesser performances. No dinner for you tonight. For shame.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Huppert - saw A Comedy of Power finally the other day (only been shown over here as part of this crime season at a local London cinema) and I'm still not sure what to think of it. Any help? Were Chabrol/Huppert coasting or on subtle fine form?