I hate Huckabees.

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Oct. 1 2004 6:14 PM

I Hate Huckabees

But I still heart David O. Russell.

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David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees (Fox Searchlight) is a rambunctious intellectual ensemble farce in which a group of disparate people cogitate frantically about the interconnectedness of all things. It's not exactly common for an American filmmaker to tackle that subject head-on, sans irony; I can think of no comparable film—certainly no comparable American film, although its Preston Sturges-like hustle and its characters' New Agey earnestness mark it clearly as a weave of New York and Los Angeles sensibilities. No, it's sui generis: a breathlessly original—almost free-associational—work that seamlessly mixes high and low comedy, that makes sport of its characters' narcissistic contortions, and yet treats their existential confusion with civilized respect. Russell is a manically inventive writer-director—maybe the most fearless talent of his generation. It's not a contradiction to say that I admire him more than ever while pronouncing Huckabees an unmitigated disaster.

The movie begins with its hero, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), uttering a string of expletives as he paces around a patch of marshland. In the midst of a fight to protect this natural resource from being leveled by the Huckabees Corp. (it's a chain of Wal-Mart-like department stores), Albert is distracted by a series of coincidences and engages a pair of "existential detectives," Vivian (Lily Tomlin) and Bernard (Dustin Hoffman), to explain their meaning. The rumpled Bernard tells him that all matter in the universe is interchangeable, that everyone and everything is part of the same existential blanket. (For this purpose, he produces an actual blanket; also, as he talks, squares from his and Albert's faces drift out into the air, hang for a bit, then drop to the ground.) Another of the detectives' clients, the rabidly antipetroleum firefighter Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), has discovered a competing philosophy via Vivian and Bernard's dialectical opposite: Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a leggy French nihilist who slinks after Albert, tossing her auburn locks and attempting to convince him, too, that all connections are illusory and that the universe consists of cruelty and nothingness (or, more precisely, nossingness). Drawn into this philosophical swamp as well are Albert's yuppie Huckabees antagonist, Brad (Jude Law), and Brad's girlfriend and the blond spokesmodel for Hucakbees, Dawn (Naomi Watts), who uglies herself up in search of her true identity.

The above makes Huckabees sound clotted with talk, but the picture moves fast—maybe too fast. Tomlin's Viv gabbles madly and leaps in and out of cars and windows, while hordes of bit players—Huckabees execs, environmental activists, firemen—dash in and out of the frame. Albert's meditations lapse into fantasies of death and dismemberment, and someone must have had a great time at the computer pixelating people and whacking off their heads. The playfulness—computer trickery, flashbacks, split-screens, jump-cuts—is engaging for a while, but the narrative begins to suffer from a similar kind of attention deficit disorder, and the movie has zero emotional weight. The ostensible protagonist—with his longish hair and pinched face, Schwartzman is a perfect cross between Russell and Tom Cruise—recedes, while Brad and Dawn inexplicably (and uninterestingly) move into the foreground. You're aware of Russell madly pumping helium into this great zeppelin, but the thing is just too overloaded (and inelegant, and ineptly designed) to float. Huckabees has a rare Jon Brion funhouse score that isn't any fun: It's melodically thin and circular—it underlines everything emotionally hollow and fatuous in the writing.

I wish I could say that the great cast keeps Huckabees afloat, but most of the acting is cringe-worthy. With his granny glasses and mussed jacket and Ringo haircut, Hoffman has a wonderful gnomish intellectual affect, but his performance is all nattery autopilot, and Law and Watts end up mugging like crazy with the camera in too close. It's great to see Tomlin so prominent, and she's a terrific physical comedian, but her face is a mask. (Whether by design or surgery, I can't say.) Only Mark Wahlberg has a personal triumph. The role was written for him, and Russell has a real understanding of the way his dopey sweetness goes hand-in-boxing-glove with his volatility.

It's difficult to know what went so disastrously wrong with I Heart Huckabees (even that title is a nonstarter), but I suspect it was dead from its inception. Russell has Buddhist leanings (he goes on about dharma and meditates ostentatiously), but he's also known as a difficult guy, especially on his sets: Someone who worked high up on one of his films told me the crew referred to him as "David O. Asshole." When I interviewed him last year for an article on Three Kings (1999), I found him smart and likably feverish, if a tad on the delusional-paranoid side—but then, I think you cut a talent like Russell's a lot of slack.

I bring up Russell's personality because I think Huckabees is an attempt to get to the heart of his temperamental instability—to reconcile his Buddhist yearning for oneness with his pugnacious impulse to scream and throttle people. And the movie fails, I'm convinced, because it approaches the problem philosophically instead of psychologically. The only scene that has any emotional heft is the one in which Albert confronts his overbearing but icy mom (Talia Shire, Schwartzman's actual mother) with the French nihilist on hand to point out that Albert was "orphaned by indifference." It's weird that for all the babbling about interconnectedness and the Sartrean interlocutor, the key scene in Huckabees is set squarely in Freud—and Alice Miller—country. Russell was much closer to the nerve in his primal-scream screwball comedy Flirting With Disaster (1996)—a major work of infantile rage. I Heart Huckabees is ostensibly more grown-up, but so fatally overintellectualized that it never finds its focus. Nothing is connected, indeed.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.