Unlike Altman or Scorsese, who have instantly recognizable styles, David O. Russell ("Flirting With Disaster," "Three Kings") never takes you to the same place twice. He's a tough guy to pigeonhole or predict. Now, in his first film in five years, he pushes the envelope with the one-of-a-kind "I [Heart] Huckabees," a whacked-out philosophical comedy that stirs slapstick and metaphysics into a playfully frenetic froth. It's like a '30s screwball comedy that's gone to grad school.
This is not an easy movie to explain: its protagonist, a tortured environmental activist named Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is in search of... well, The Meaning of Life. Or at least the meaning of his life. So, naturally, he hires two "existential detectives" to get to the bottom of his metaphysical case. The detectives--the husband-and-wife team Bernard and Vivian Jaffe--are played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, who make a daffily inspired comic couple. Spying on every aspect of Albert's life, they subject him to one bizarre exercise after another in hopes of awakening him to their vision of the interconnectedness of all matter.
The existential detectives home in on Albert's contentious relationship with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a handsome, ruthlessly ambitious executive at the giant chain store Huckabees, whose spokesmodel (Naomi Watts) is Brad's girlfriend. Albert turns out to be a tough case. The Jaffes try pairing him up with a buddy, an angry fireman played by a very funny Mark Wahlberg. This plan backfires big time when the fireman persuades Albert to dump the E.D.'s and hire their archrival, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a nihilistic Parisian whose business card reads: "Cruelty. Manipulation. Meaninglessness."
Have I lost you? Well, the plot--which I will now give up trying to explain--is not the point here. Russell's movie (which he co-wrote with Jeff Baena) hits the ground running, flinging verbal and visual information at you with machine-gun velocity. Your mind is engaged and delighted as the movie bounces from philosophical thesis to antithesis to synthesis. You laugh, you smile--but your emotions don't get much of a workout. The trouble is, "Huckabees" doesn't build. It stays on the same giddy, brainy level from start to finish, and this can get exhausting. It's hard to know what's dramatically at stake, partly because the relationship between Albert and Brad feels too abstract. Ultimately, "Huckabees" doesn't work. But it sure does stimulate. This is just the kind of "failure" we could use plenty more of.