I love Huckabees (15)

A mind-tweaking farce of ideas? Or just a farce?
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A scene in screwball comedy I love Huckabees has Lily Tomlin, as an "existential detective", diving head-first into Jude Law's rubbish bin and fishing out a volume of Kafka. It turns out that the Law character simply planted the book as a false lead; quite why is never clear. I love Huckabees - it's pronounced "I Heart Huckabees", go figure - is itself a big dustbin of a movie, filled with throwaway details, whimsical "plants" designed to bemuse and bedazzle us. Hardcore Huckabees fans will doubtless whip up an internet debate about the significance of the cardboard cut-outs of Shania Twain, the Magritte bowler hat, the cantaloupe melon and the swimsuit photos of a young Jessica Lange.

But it would have been useful if director David O Russell had left a copy of the Huckabees script lying around somewhere, to reassure us that he wasn't just making it up as he went along. This is one of those films that you either take to or you very much don't; that you see either as a teasing cornucopia of philosophical profundities, or as a farrago of half-baked freshman posturing.

Russell, who made the acerbic incest comedy Spanking the Monkey and the war satire Three Kings, tends to be classed among the wave of smart young American stylists that includes the Andersons (P T and Wes), Sofia Coppola and writer Charlie Kaufman. Huckabees offers itself as a mind-tweaking farce of ideas, but it has neither Kaufman's effortless embrace of paradox, nor the Andersons' relaxed humanity. It does, however, kick off from an appealing premise: its depressed hero wants to know if there's a coherent story behind his seemingly chaotic life, and hires a pair of existential detectives to investigate him. He's a character in search of a plot.

Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is a befuddled environmental activist crusading against the expansionist plans of retail chain Huckabees, only to find his cause hijacked by opportunistic executive Brad Stand (Law). But what actually drives Albert to seek the help of metaphysical gumshoes Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) is a seemingly innocuous coincidence: he's run into the same Sudanese doorman three times. "Coincidences - they're not always meaningful," Vivian warns, and she might have added, "or interesting."

The doorman is a red herring that Russell doesn't know how to pickle, an arbitrary device to kick-start the plot. Such plot as follows seems to evolve purely to accommodate various pratfalls and indignities, or to allow the characters to pause occasionally and toss out thought-bites ("There is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity," is one of the snappier ones). Other cartoonish characters include Brad's model girlfriend (Naomi Watts), who revolts against her beauty and starts wearing bad teeth and an Amish bonnet; environmentally anguished fireman Tommy (a likeably earnest Mark Wahlberg); and a French nihilist guru (Isabelle Huppert, a haughty touch above it all), whose calling card reads, "Cruelty. Manipulation. Meaninglessness.". That, in fact, may be a fair description of Russell's way with actors, given that Huppert and Schwartzman's sex scene requires them to violently dunk each other's faces in mud.

Although Russell and co-writer Jeff Baena supposedly spent over a year hothousing deep thought, Huckabees is a film that plays at ideas, rather than with them. The philosophical content is grindingly banal.

Everything is connected, preaches Hoffman, the tip of his nose digitally fusing with Schwartzman's. Nothing is connected, says Huppert. To quote the great American phenomenologists Leiber and Stoller, is that all there is? Tantalisingly, some lines would probably sound hilarious in an episode of Seinfeld: "The lady hates mayo!"; "Is it a crime? Is it a crime to look at Lange?". But here they hang suspended in a vacuum of contingency. That's partly because of Russell's deathly comic timing: scenes tail off in non-committal dissolves, or subside into panicked shouting matches. The visual humour is often so broad that it's barely a notch above Three Stooges level: Albert and Brad throttle each other in a lift, in front of two startled matrons; Albert and Tommy whack each other's faces with a big rubber ball, in search of "pure being" - I duhhh, therefore I am.

Schwartzman - playing, by all accounts, Russell's surrogate self - embodies the film's abrasive smugness, a L'Oréal-locked doofus who could be modelling callow petulance for L'Uomo Vogue. The daffy Jaffes are the film's most likeable assets, Tomlin's precise, patrician snippiness clearly encouraging Hoffman to let his hair down (literally: a ludicrous salt-and-pepper mop-top) and have a laugh.

A genuine oddity, I love Huckabees may conceivably be long remembered in the annals of what-the-hell-was-that cinema. The comedy suggests an ungainly hybrid of Preston Sturges, Elaine May and below-par Alan Rudolph, plus a dash of McSweeney's; but mostly, it recalls the fuzzy madcap fare that emerged in the late Sixties when Hollywood screenwriters started to drop acid (The President's Analyst, or any film with Peter Sellers in a novelty wig). You'll find more laughs, brains and hip malevolence in one sequence of the priceless US sitcom Arrested Development - currently on BBC 2 and 4 - than you will here.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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