I heart you, I heart you not

“I Heart Huckabees”FOX Searchlight PicturesDirected by David O. RussellWritten by David O. Russell and Jeff BaenaStarring Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Naomi Watts, Isabelle Huppert, and Mark WahlbergRated R/106 MinutesOpened in theaters Oct. 22

Two out of five stars

“I Heart Huckabees” is a 10-car pileup of philosophy, screwball comedy and sex in the mud. Granted, it’s undeniably charming and certainly unconventional-you’ve never seen anything quite like it-but co-writer/director David O. Russell (“Flirting With Disaster,” “Three Kings”) lets his ideas run around like chickens with their heads cut off. They scatter, collide and flap their wings, but ultimately end up going nowhere.

Jason Schwartzman plays Albert Markovski, a poetic environmentalist with a haircut borrowed from an Afghan hound. He sulks. He curses. He ponders ‘the meaning of it all’ when his latest project, “Save the Marshes!” is usurped by Brad Stand (Jude Law), a corporate huckster from Huckabees, “The Everything Store!” (think Wal-Mart with an even more inexplicable name).

In the pocket of a borrowed jacket, Albert finds a card for Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a husband-wife team of existential detectives. “Everything’s the same even if it’s different,” says Bernard. He demonstrates this to Albert by poking his hands up through different parts of the same blanket. “This is you and this is me and this is the Eiffel Tower!” Hoffman, wearing a dusty gray mop of Beatle-shag, has fun with this strangely exhilarating scene. There’s a twinkle in his eye that reels you in, promising a film of substance and silly grins.

Albert hires the Jaffes and they shadow his every move-taking notes, tapping phones and searching for the connections that give life meaning. Albert’s OK with this until they intrude on his work and draw the attention of the vain Brad. Brad also hires the Jaffes, partly because he’s looking for meaning and partly because, well, he wants to drive Albert up the wall.

And up the wall Albert goes. He teams up with Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a post 9-11 firefighter also suffering from “Existentialitis.” They reject the Jaffes, favoring Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a French nihilist who believes nothing is connected, there are no coincidences and life is meaningless and cruel. Somehow she demonstrates this by having the two men punch each other in the face with red rubber balls and then has sex with one of them in the mud. I see.

You’ll smile a lot during “Huckabees,” maybe even laugh out loud a few times. There’s a sublimely silly scene in which Tommy, who sneers at the evils of petroleum, peddles his bike toward a fire. And Naomi Watts has fun as Dawn, Brad’s girlfriend and the Huckabee’s spokes model. She rejects beauty and embraces a “bonnets and no make-up” lifestyle that might grace the pages of “Amish Maxim.”

But somehow, none of this adds up to anything we can sink our teeth into. It’s unclear what director Russell means to convey with all this long-winded, philosophical gobbledygook. Does he take any of it seriously? Is it a parody of the sort of people who do take it seriously? Scene after scene is thick with human traffic, shouting, explaining and arguing the meaning or non-meaning of existence and reality and… My God, it’s tiring! You’ll throw your hands up in defeat.

All of that aside, the actors do give fine performances, especially Law, who steals the crown from Gene Hackman as “The Guy Who Seems to be in Every Film Made this Year.” The entire world caves in on his character late in the movie-it’s an island of emotion in a sea of cool style and not much else. Wahlberg gives his best performance since “Boogie Nights” as Tommy, the sort of guy who believes in a cause no matter how ridiculous or off-putting it is. He twists his character into something really funny-we sit up in our seats whenever he shows up.

With such a great cast, it’s frustrating that Russell couldn’t mold his film into something comprehensible. Yes, “I Heart Huckabees” is unabashedly original, but its style builds a wall between the film and the audience, through which no semblance of understanding and emotion can penetrate.

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