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The Jung and the Restless

David O. Russell Has a Good Time With Navel-Gazing in His 'I "> Huckabees'

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2004; Page C05

Albert is your classic Gen X neurotic: Long of hair and long of face, he's got a really bad habit of writing really bad poetry and forcing it on others. He's haunted by the eroding environment. He's haunted by weird coincidences involving a very tall Sudanese. More than anything, he's haunted by the mocking face of his arch-rival, the corporate golden boy, Brad Stand. And for all his granola politics, he's nursing a nascent rage. Whenever he tries to meditate -- in a body bag, at the urging of his life coaches -- all he sees are "hating faces that I have to chop up with a machete."

Clearly, Albert's got Issues.

Jason Schwartzman, left, struggles with big questions and nemesis Jude Law in "I{heart} Huckabees." (Claudette Barius -- AP)

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In the film "I ♥ Huckabees," a manic meditation on life's big questions, Albert -- and by extension, the rest of us -- tussles with Issues guaranteed to keep even narcoleptics tossing and turning: Is everything connected -- or completely disconnected? Is human suffering inevitable? Is this all there is?

This being a comedy, and one directed by the quirkily quixotic David O. Russell ("Flirting with Disaster," "Three Kings"), Albert has access to something that non-movie mortals don't: the unusually devoted attention of Bernard and Vivian (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a pair of married "existential detectives." Their business, as stated on their business cards: "Crisis Intervention and Resolution." They may claim to traffic in existentialism, but their approach -- "Everything is connected!" -- is more akin to the beatific Buddha than to the cynical Sartre.

They've taken on Albert's case pro bono, with a warning that they'll be spying on every, and they do mean every, aspect of his miserable little life, from his flagging career as an environmentalist -- which threatens to be eviscerated by the dreaded Brad (Jude Law, satirizing his pretty-boy persona), a rising star at the megastore Huckabees -- to his relationship with his distant mother (Talia Shire), to his nonexistent sex life.

And they make head-scratching pronouncements: "If you floss or masturbate," Vivian tells him somberly, "that could be the key to your entire reality."

Of course, this slavish devotion to detail has all sorts of embarrassing, and hilarious, consequences for the adenoidal Albert, played to Woody Allenesque perfection by Jason Schwartzman (Shire's son in real life, too, and best known for "Rushmore"), as he tries to find his ultimate reality -- and the riddle of that "tall African guy" who keeps cropping up front and center in his life.

Like "Flirting With Disaster," this is a road movie, although the terrain traveled is an interior one. (To underscore this, Albert's everyday life is filmed in bright, generic suburban Los Angeles hues, while his internal musings are lushly surreal images that bring to mind Magritte and Dali.) Every road movie has its loyal sidekick, and in that Albert is paired up with attitudinal Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter whose existential conflict and obsession with fossil fuel consumption has caused his wife to show him the door.

"Once you realize the universe sucks," Tommy tells him, "you've got nothing to lose."

On the road to self-awareness, they meet up with sexy Caterine (Isabelle Huppert), the nihilistic French philosopher and foe to Vivian and Bernard, her onetime mentors, who urges them to embrace their dark side since life is a big ole nothing anyway; and the ditzy Dawn (Naomi Watts), the bikini-clad Huckabees spokesmodel who ditches Brad once she discovers Amish bonnets, overalls and her inner Simone de Beauvoir.

Ultimately, "I ♥ Huckabees" is an allegory. There is a plot, of sorts, in that there is a conflict (will Albert rescue his career from the clutches of the evil Brad?) and a resolution. But "I ♥ Huckabees" rambles along at its own good-natured pace, tossing out ideas like Santa ditching dump trucks at Christmas. Indeed, Russell's not afraid to take on weighty topics: existentialism vs. nihilism, meaning vs. nothingness, Christianity, suburban sprawl, the deification of firefighters post-9/11 and all things Shania. As in Shania Twain.

As with "Three Kings," Russell's treatise on the Gulf War, "I ♥ Huckabees" has a political bent, served with a heavy dollop of humor. His politics definitely steer left of center; the laughs keep this from turning into mush.

"I ♥ Huckabees" is a hot or cold affair: You'll either double over or quickly grow impatient with its self-indulgent navel-gazing. But with razor-sharp performances, zingy one-liners, broad slapstick humor and a message of sorts, there's enough to distract the viewer from becoming hopelessly lost in the lint-filled chaos that is the umbilicus.

I ♥ Huckabees (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, nudity and brief sex scenes.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company