I Heart Huckabees

The fall of 2004 is notable for bringing the American public the fourth releases from three quirky writer-directors who all arrived on the independent scene at the same time: Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and now The Life Aquatic), Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and now Sideways), and David O. Russell, who last made the incredible war drama Three Kings and now, with I Heart Huckabees, returns to the indie comedy of his first features Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster.

I give you this complicated lead-in because I'm not that interested in talking about the film itself.

Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play a husband-and-wife team of "existential detectives" who help people come to terms with the meaning of life. Enter Albert (Jason Schwartzman), a frazzled young anti-suburban-sprawl activist who wants to know why he's run into the same anonymous African man on three different occasions. The detectives proceed to monitor Albert's life and focus on his combative relationship with his onetime friend Brad (Jude Law), a hotshot PR man for Huckabees, a Target-like chain of retail stores.

Thereafter a lot - and I mean a lot - of philosophical dialogue ensues, some of it interesting, a tiny bit of it brilliant, and a lot of it not as eye-opening as Russell intends. Which sums up the film as a whole, frankly.

A friend said that college students may find I Heart Huckabees amazing in its struggle to explore the meaning of the mysteries of the universe. That may be true. But I'm 34. I've already thought about this stuff. So I wasn't that wowed. And personally, I think any movie that sets out to tackle the Meaning Of Life is asking for trouble: you can find plenty of truthful examination in any good film that doesn't wear these intentions on its sleeve.

Still, I applaud Russell for putting such an intellectual-ish Hollywood film out there, and Huckabees is entertaining, though its pacing is very static, with every scene running at the same level of manic blabbiness. But for all its grandiose vision, its ending is surprisingly pat, even trite.

As for the cast, Jude Law, who appears in no less than six features released during the last quarter of 2004, needs a vacation, and it shows in Huckabees: he lets a juicy role run out of steam, thanks to a distractingly uneven fake American accent. Not that the rest of the cast fares much better: the equally overemployed Naomi Watts is wasted, Mark Wahlberg is good but his role is never really defined, and Schwartzman is simply annoying. Only old veterans Hoffman, Tomlin, and the ever-alluring French actress Isabelle Huppert maintain a level of class that rises above Russell's whiny dialogue.