By Pete Vonder Haar | October 2, 2004

Before we begin, let me make a promise to you, the reader. I promise not to use the adjectives “quirky,” “indescribable,” or “surreal” to discuss “I Heart Huckabees,” the latest film from writer/director David O. Russell. I also won’t try to convince you of my intellectual cred by dropping philosophers’ names in an attempt to demonstrate how knowledgeable I am about such things, like other reviewers will. There’s no point, since you’ll find little in the way of actual philosophy in the film, and – unfortunately for Russell – not much more in the way of laughs, either. Neither of which bodes well for a film billing itself as an “existential comedy.”

The movie isn’t as hard to explain as everyone’s going to tell you, either. Jason Schwartzman plays Albert, founder and leader (for the time being) of the Open Spaces Coalition. He’s also prone to fits of profanity and writing bad poetry. Albert is convinced that a series of coincidences in his life are anything but, so he hires Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin), two “existential detectives” to investigate. They take his case, but demand unfettered access to his life in order to better demonstrate that all things are part and parcel of the same universal fabric (in another movie, they might have called it “the Force). This is what passes for “existentialism” in “Huckabees,”

At odds with Albert is Brad (Jude Law), a successful corporate lackey employed by the department store chain Huckabees. The store has entered into a precarious arrangement with Open Spaces, who are assured that Huckabees will not wreak too much environmental damage upon the land where a new store is going up. Brad is also wresting control of the coalition from Albert, thanks to his glib good looks and Albert’s insistence on reciting his horrible poems at meetings. Meanwhile, Brad’s girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts), the “face of Huckabees,” is having a crisis of her own, and has taken to “uglifying” herself by smearing grime on her face and wearing overalls. Unfortunately for her, this just makes her look like a dirty Naomi Watts, which is hardly a turn-off.

Albert’s case doesn’t get very far before the investigators partner him up with Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) a petroleum-hating, bike-riding firefighter who is, unfortunately, straying from Bernard and Vivian’s concept of universal oneness in favor of the nihilistic worldview of their competitor, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). Caterine’s business card reads “cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness”…hardly a comforting viewpoint, but it fulfills the purpose of juxtaposing Caterine with the detectives. Is either perspective correct? Or do the answers of Albert’s life questions lie somewhere in the middle?

With “I Heart Huckabees,” Russell has come up with some interesting ideas and amusing dialogue, but having it come from the mouths of such thick-headed characters only makes it clear how little there really is to like about any of them. If you want to listen to the deliberately eccentric lament their place in the universe, go check out your local midtown coffee bar. Watching them suffer from spiritual breakdowns onscreen might be good for the odd laugh, but it doesn’t make for great cinema.

Russell scores points for his casting, however, and whether the performances he draws out are a result of his notoriously invasive directing style or not, it’s hard to think of a better effort from Watts or Wahlberg, who I’d long ago consigned to the dust heap of Performers Who Mistake Looking Constipated for “Acting” (see also Ashley Judd). Hoffman and Tomlin don’t stretch, but nor do they phone it in, while Law continues to prove his status as one of our generation’s better talents. And it’s nice to hear a British actor struggle with an American accent, rather than vice versa.

“Huckabees” does, at times, throw down some intelligent comedy, but we never really develop any sense of who these people are or what the point of this whole exercise is. Russell would probably argue that this is the point, but in his earlier efforts like “Three Kings” and (to a lesser extent) “Flirting with Disaster,” we felt some attachment to the characters. In “Huckabees,” they come across as so annoyingly self-absorbed it’s difficult to feel anything for them, much less empathize.

The resulting product is so disjointed it’s hard to tell if Russell dumbed down the film in the hope of garnering a larger audience, or if “I Heart Huckabees” simply isn’t as smart as it likes to think it is. Personally, I’m going with the latter. “Huckabees” is a screwball comedy with a thin dusting of Philosophy 101, hardly the “existential comedy” it claims to be, but whether this was Russell’s intent is, like the theme of the movie itself, open to debate.

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