By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2004; Page WE45

YOU'D EXPECT the premise of "I ♥ Huckabees" to be a satirical joke, a humorous exchange between two characters in, let's say, a Woody Allen movie.

"Oh yes," one character would say. "Last I heard, David was making a movie about a young man who hires a pair of existential detectives to resolve the moral quandaries in his life."

Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman, left) seeks help from "existential detective" Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) in the unlovable film "I {heart} Huckabees." (Claudette Barius -- Fox Searchlight)

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"Oh, a French film?"

"No. He's calling it an existential comedy."

The sad thing is, David O. Russell went ahead and made that movie. And indeed, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) does pay a visit to "existential" detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin).

He's a green activist who likes to plant trees in the center of corporate parking lots. He's currently fighting to protect a marshland habitat from company executive Brad Stand (Jude Law), who wants to build yet another of his Huckabees superstores. But in the midst of this consuming activity, he has run into a tall African, a doorman, on three separate occasions. This seems to be more than coincidence. And it seems to tie in with his concerns about life, the universe, everything. He's troubled. He needs existential detectives.

Albert discovers to his horror that the Jaffes like to take the holistic approach. They're always looking for the big picture, Bernard insists. This means putting Albert into a black sense-deprivation bag, where he can confront his demons. It also means poking through Albert's trash, observing Albert at breakfast from his roof (and feverishly taking notes), investigating his circles of friends and enemies, and basically examining everything.

Meanwhile Brad gets wind of Albert's contract with the detectives and decides to hire them as well; it's all part of a convoluted scheme he has in mind. He's also planning to dump his girlfriend and company spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts) for a younger model. Also factoring in the scattered story lines are Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter who has become radicalized by the world's consumerism and dependence on oil ever since "the big September thing," and French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), who sees randomness where the Jaffes see connectedness.

It sounds like a Wes Anderson movie. But Russell (who made "Spanking the Monkey," "Flirting With Disaster" and "Three Kings," all terrific in different ways) and co-writer Jeff Baena lack Anderson's effortlessly smart wit. Theirs is too painfully forced, from the movie's thin premise to its ideas about what's funny: Hoffman in a Beatles wig?

Furthermore, there's no one to care about. Albert fizzles around like someone short of his meds, the Jaffes are a pair of writer's conceits more than characters; Wahlberg, Watts and Law seem to be in the movie merely to add marquee value; and Huppert looks lost, as if she wandered into this story by accident. The movie's satirical tweaking of New Age thinking and other philosophical mumbo jumbo and its trendy post9/11 commentary don't deepen things or make them funny. They just suck the air out of the movie's premise -- whatever that may be. In a way, there's something admirably pure about this film. It doesn't mess around in the middle zone of mediocrity. It's uncompromisingly bad, single-mindedly off-target. And you're either going to hate this thing or, well, I don't even want to finish that thought.

I ♥ HUCKABEES (R, 104 minutes) -- Contains nudity, sex scenes and obscenity. Area theaters.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company