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After the think man
Russell’s Heart is a head case

The title itself is going to throw people off. Everyone recognizes the heart symbol, but no one knows how to say it ("love?" "heart?") or reproduce it. So, no word of mouth, lots of irritation from reviewers. Not that it will matter — in fact, the offputting title serves notice of the offputting film to follow, and the more offputting suspicion that Russell doesn’t care whether anyone likes it or not. He’s not going to get worked up if the film proves neither a commercial nor critical success, and he’s not likely to care that some (including me) will admire its sheer audacity, its austere wit, absurdity, and play, more than will enjoy actually watching it.

Or is he? Heart begins with an Adaptation-like moment of foul-mouthed, naked self-doubt and self-loathing muttered in voiceover by Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a would-be environmental activist and poet. His low self-esteem seems deserved. His efforts to preserve a marshland from development have saved exactly one rock, and his poem about it suggests he shouldn’t give up his day job. Or maybe he should just give up.

Into this slough of despond slips the desperate hope offered by a series of coincidences. On three occasions, Albert has seen the same stranger, a towering, thin young African in a doorman’s uniform. What could it mean? Then a second coincidence compounds the first as Albert finds a business card in a borrowed jacket. It is that of Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin) Jaffe, "existential detectives," a kind of Nick and Nora Charles for the new age. After finding their office in a labyrinthine series of corridors (at one point he seems to be pursuing himself), Albert signs on with the duo, who offer a two-fold strategy to solve his "coincidence." Vivian will follow his every move and find the missing links in his external life. And Bernard will dissolve those external links altogether, reconnecting Albert with the "blanket," the oneness underlying all phenomena, including that of Albert’s illusory ego.

Unfortunately, such phenomena are what make up a movie, and insofar as the film’s particulars adhere to the Jaffes’ (and Russell’s) schema (these detectives don’t look for answers to questions, they seek questions for their answers), they’re pat and unexciting. But Russell is a filmmaker drawn more to chaos than to unity. Most filmmakers apply the camera like a probe, penetrating the frame, directing it at an object. For Russell, the camera is a target at which he tosses stuff and nonsense. His characters seem to be forever ducking and fleeing whatever comes flying at them from out of camera range — one reason his Three Kings was at once so hilarious and terrifying. More intriguing than the Jaffes’ bromides about the oneness of all is Bernard’s fetishizing of melons and Magritte and his attempt to placate another client with the chantings of a black-shrouded peasant woman. ("We ground the locusts and made them into bread," she says through a translator.)

That client is Tommy (Mark Wahlberg demonstrating what a skilled comic actor he is), a nihilist fireman who rants against petroleum while acknowledging that it makes no difference because the world is all emptiness and pain anyway. In short, Tommy has latched onto the dark side of the Jaffes’ Buddha Lite philosophy as pitched by Jaffe apostate Caterine Vauban (a gelid Isabelle Huppert). A battle for the clients’ souls ensues. In addition to Tommy and Albert, who might represent the id and the superego, there’s Brad Stand (Jude Law, doing a scintillating impression of an actor in a Howard Hawks screwball comedy), Albert’s nemesis, the rising, ruthless star of the all-consuming Huckabees corporation, and the glib, shining embodiment of ego.

The ego gets short shrift, though, its illusions limited to the vapid politics of childish tree huggers and the ruthless conniving of their corporate enemies. Between that wasteland and the equally vapid void of second-hand satori pitched by the Jaffes and Caterine, Russell stakes out a turf — no larger than Albert’s rock, maybe, but as solid and impenetrable — of non-sequiturs, rapid-fire ephemera, and childlike delight in the sheer insanity of being. He doesn’t make a case for saving the world or, for that matter, giving it up altogether. In the end, the best he can conjure is the image of two characters whacking themselves on the head to achieve, briefly, nirvana — kind of the spiritual equivalent of the title practice of his first film, Spanking the Monkey. Still, in typographical terms at least, Russell challenges audiences to grasp the meaning, and appreciate the comedy, of that elusive concept [Heart].

Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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