Searching for the meaning of life in a movie that barely exists.

Say What? Say Why? 

Searching for the meaning of life in a movie that barely exists.

Maybe it's the mark of a great film that it can affect an audience member even when he sleeps through the entire thing. Such was the case with my father at a recent preview of David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees, a philosophy lecture masquerading as a comedy in which shrill Lily Tomlin and mop-topped Dustin Hoffman play existential detectives looking for meaning in the life of Jason Schwartzman, playing an environmental activist trying to save marshland from a retailer's encroachment. The old man dozed through the whole film. Yet the next day he rang and insisted, "You owe me for that fucking movie." He said the movie had kept him awake that night, after a series of nightmares led him to question his own existence. I, on the other hand, slept like a baby that night, confident that whereas I existed, I Heart Huckabees barely did.

Certainly I Heart Huckabees will reach a portion of the audience that sees it; they will find truth and beauty in its theoretical pronouncements and see something of themselves in the characters who are desperately yearning for some kind of spiritual-physical-emotional connection in the mundane chaos and vapid coincidences of their everyday existences. Russell covered this ground in his far superior Flirting With Disaster, in which Ben Stiller sought his birth parents to find the roots that would anchor his rudderless existence. The filmmaker, working with co-writer Jeff Baena, is into some deep and heady shit here (or he's just full of shit), and for that he should be applauded; blessed is the filmmaker who uses the medium to do more than shill soundtracks and provide us with dull, dumb explosions.

But Russell, a former student of Buddhist philosopher Robert Thurman, strains too hard, says too much in a movie that adds up to very little. The movie skitters along at a frenzied pace, but its steam quickly evaporates. The characters are merely cutouts presenting the two sides of one man's inner debate. This is moviemaking at its most personal -- a student thesis performed by top-notch players (also including Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts and Jude Law) rounded up by a director who asked them to act out ideas disconnected from any real emotion. You don't feel for any of these folks, because they don't feel anything themselves.

Schwartzman is Albert Markovski, head of an environmental activist group called the Open Spaces Coalition, trying to keep Huckabees, a sort of hipper Wal-Mart, from building a new store in some beautiful woodlands. Albert is seduced by Huckabees exec Brad Stand (Law, all grins and golden hair) into working with the company: Albert will stop protesting Huckabees, which in return promises not only to stop construction but also to hire Shania Twain as Open Spaces' new eco-friendly spokeswoman. Of course Brad's a liar, but Albert is just as liable: He wants to believe Brad, maybe even to be Brad, who has everything Albert doesn't, including Huckabees model Dawn (Watts).

In the midst of this crisis, Albert suffers an existential breakdown and hires Bernard and Vivien Jaffe (Hoffman and Tomlin) to spy on him all the time. (Maybe the truth about him will be revealed in how he brushes his teeth.) The Jaffes try to convince Albert that everything in the universe is connected, but he is torn by the Jaffes' rival, a nihilist named Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), who screws Albert in a puddle of mud and makes him confront the mother (Talia Shire, Schwartzman's real mom) who always treated him like an afterthought. And with that we're back in Flirting territory -- it always comes back to the parents.

But what does it all mean? Dunno and don't care, because there's nothing here to care about. It's as though Russell is trying to impress his old professor at the expense of the good movie this might have been had the director had anything to, ya know, say.

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