Clever but distancing, this existential comedy bounces along on the backs of its tasty cast, witty writing and stylistic verve. But the film inhabits an archly artificial realm, making it largely an intellectual pleasure with a hollow core. Fox Searchlight release may tap pockets of ardent critical support to buoy its status among upscale fall releases.

Having revealed a taste for farce in “Flirting With Disaster,” which traced a young man’s search for his birth parents, David O. Russell revisits the genre to track another young man’s search for more abstract answers in “I Heart Huckabees.” Clever but distancing, this existential comedy bounces along on the backs of its tasty cast, witty writing and stylistic verve. But the film inhabits an archly artificial realm, making it largely an intellectual pleasure with a hollow core. A definite specialty item despite its more mainstream accoutrements, the Fox Searchlight release nonetheless may tap pockets of ardent critical support to buoy its status among upscale fall releases.

The group of young filmmakers that included Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Russell, as well as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, were collectively hailed a few years back as the new saviors of creatively moribund Hollywood. Since then it has become apparent just how much the group has in common.

Intellectual and philosophical curiosity, stylistic adventurousness, brainy humor and a taste for absurdist eccentricity are all to some degree shared characteristics. Also central is a frequent fascination for driven oddballs whose individual missions cause them to chafe against the world around them.

In most cases, the slightly sagacious nature of those filmmakers’ work has been anchored by an accessible emotional heart — the precocious prep-schooler’s growing pains in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore”; the floundering father’s efforts to regain his family’s trust in the same director’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”; the aching romance of Kaufman’s (and director Michel Gondry’s) “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” “I Heart Huckabees,” however, is basically a hipster head trip about life’s big questions, and, as a result, is a more rarefied entertainment.

Eager to understand the deeper significance of coincidental encounters with the same man but also to get to the bottom of what’s wrong with his life, environmental activist and poet Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) seeks professional help from Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin), who run an existential detective agency. The bravura, uninterrupted tracking shot that follows Albert through the maze-like corridors leading to the couple’s office sets the tone for the tortuous journey of enlightenment the Jaffes’ investigation unleashes.

Despite instructions from Albert to stay clear of his work environment, the Jaffes begin digging deep into both his private and professional life, pushing him to accept his interconnectedness to all people and things.

They identify the root of his problems in Brad Stand (Jude Law), an ambitious exec at retail chain Huckabees. Albert feels Brad has hijacked his Open Spaces Coalition for PR purposes after earlier announcing plans to build a mall on the marshland Albert’s trying to protect.

Brad throws a wrench into Albert’s investigation, however, by hiring the Jaffes to look into his own life. This triggers a crisis with his girlfriend, Huckabees spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts), who overnight negates her coquette persona to explore her infinite nature, swapping her bikini for dowdy Amish austerity.

Unhappy with the course of his investigation and with Brad’s further intrusion into his life, Albert teams with eco-crusading firefighter Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), another client of the Jaffes who’s increasingly skeptical of their methods. He sways Albert to embrace the theories of French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a former protegee of the Jaffes who crossed over to the dark side of nihilist individualism.

The Jaffes continue closing in on their clients’ unresolved issues while Caterine attacks their problems from another angle. Eventually, the warring metaphysicians’ philosophies converge, providing breakthroughs all round.

While psychobabble can be a deadening element in any film, co-screenwriters Russell and Jeff Baena keep the philosophical conundrums bouncing back and forth like a tennis match, weighing life’s greater significance and purpose against emptiness and futility via a variety of neatly skewered schools of thought.

Bernard Jaffe’s methods, especially, prompt some stylish visual devices, in his use of tree-visualization therapy or when Albert slips into a body bag to exorcise his demons, which appear in a collage of cutout images. There’s also a nod to quantum physical reality, with particles and cubes literally shuffling and reforming as part of Albert’s laborious dismantling process. Bernard is a surrealist thinker in thrall to Magritte, a reference that seems to underline Bunuel as the film’s cinematic antecedent of choice.

What’s missing perhaps is the heart of the film’s title, or a character for the audience to invest in. But this is no fault of the cast.

By far Schwartzman’s most prominent role since debuting in “Rushmore,” the actor again is quick-witted and appealing here, playing an impassioned character who’s far more neurotic and wired than his deadpan schoolboy in the earlier film. Law wryly plays up and then tears down his sleek, golden-haired image, uncovering the destabilizing anxiety and self-doubt beneath Brad’s dazzling charm. Watts is goofily amusing as the preening consumer kitten suddenly aware the joke was on her. Wahlberg (who worked with Russell in “Three Kings”) makes Tommy an intense tough guy who’s unrelenting in posing difficult questions. And Huppert drolly milks her haughty French allure for all its worth.

The most enjoyable cast members, however, are Tomlin and Hoffman, zinging off each other and off the still mutually adoring couple’s scholarly observations with obvious relish. For “Flirting With Disaster” alumna Tomlin especially, hardboiled Vivian’s tireless sleuthing and knowing assessments represent the best use of the actress’ impeccable comic skills in years.

A number of well-known faces turn up in minor roles, including Jean Smart and an unbilled Richard Jenkins as adoptive parents of a Sudanese refugee; Tippi Hedren as a key Open Spaces member; “Raising Victor Vargas” granny Altagracia Guzman as a Spanish spiritualist; French thesp Said Taghmaoui as her translator; and pop-country star Shania Twain as the celebrity face of Brad’s wetlands campaign. Schwartzman’s mother Talia Shire appears briefly with Bob Gunton as Albert’s self-absorbed parents.

Superbly crafted film is crisply shot in widescreen and clean colors by Peter Deming, while K.K. Barrett’s production design favors stripped-down, slightly sterile environments with occasional quirky touches. Mark Bridges’ injects plenty of personality into his costumes, from Brad’s sharp suits to Dawn’s skimpy babewear and the snazzy, retro-styled dresses worn by Vivian and Caterine. Perhaps the most pleasurable contribution is the almost saturation use of a lovely, whimsical score by Jon Brion, much of it based on his songs.

I Heart Huckabees

Production

A Fox Searchlight release of a Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation in association with Qwerty Films, of a Kanzeon, Scott Rudin, N1 European Film Produktions production. Produced by David O. Russell, Gregory Goodman, Scott Rudin. Executive producer, Michael Kuhn. Co-producer, Dara L. Weintraub. Directed by David O. Russell. Screenplay, Russell, Jeff Baena.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Peter Deming; editor, Robert K. Lambert; music, Jon Brion; production designer, K.K. Barrett; art director, Seth Reed; set decorator, Gene Serdena; costume designer, Mark Bridges; sound (Dolby Digital), Greg Steele; supervising sound editor, Kelly Oxford; sound designer, Tim Walston, Michael Kamper; visual effects supervisor, Russell Barrett; assistant director, Mary Ellen Woods; casting, Mary Vernieu. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala), Sept. 10, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Albert Markovski - Jason Schwartzman Caterine Vauban - Isabelle Huppert Bernard Jaffe - Dustin Hoffman Vivian Jaffe - Lily Tomlin Brad Stand - Jude Law Tommy Corn - Mark Wahlberg Dawn Campbell - Naomi Watts
With: Angela Grillo, Kevin Dunn, Tippi Hedren, Jean Smart, Talia Shire, Bob Gunton, Altagracia Guzman, Said Taghmaoui, Shania Twain.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more