Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is a young environmental campaigner, troubled by a strange series of coincidences and profound feelings of uncertainty. He goes to see Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a pair of Existential Detectives who agree to trail him in order to solve his anxieties. Meanwhile, Albert has made a dubious deal with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a sales-exec from the Huckabees department store eager to provide ecological sponsorship.
David O. Russell's fourth film is closest in tone to his second movie, the screwball comedy Flirting with Disaster, but has far loftier ambitions; marketed as an 'existential comedy', it combines slapstick and surreal farce with a series of philosophical arguments about loneliness and the meaning of existence. The end result proves to be just as messy and audience-dividing as you’d expect; never quite as clever or funny as it wants to be, the film is helped immeasurably by a top-notch, up-for-anything cast. Hoffman and especially Tomlin are gloriously undignified as the two new-age PIs, following Albert everywhere to uncover clues to his disaffected state-of-mind, while a dead-pan Isabelle Huppert plays Caterine Vauban, their arch-rival who attempts to lure Albert over to her way of thinking. Jude Law's super-slick sales guy is a shallow image-obsessed narcissist who also hires the Jaffes, ostensively to cure his own emotional turmoil but in reality as part of his plan to have Albert sacked from his own campaign team. Naomi Watts cuts a vacant-yet-sexy figure as Dawn, Brad's girlfriend and the face (and body) of Huckabees' ad campaign, who also finds herself transformed by the Jaffe's intervention. And best of all is Mark Wahlberg, giving a career-best performance as Tommy Corn, a half-crazed firefighter obsessed with the evils of petrol consumption whom the Jaffes pair up with Albert to provide mutual support.
Russell and Jeff Baena's script is very much in Charlie Kaufman territory (though they'd probably deny it), but it lacks Kaufman's deft touch with such mind-bending material. Part of the problem is the character of Albert – which is not to say that Schwartzman doesn't put in a good performance – but he's just as mad as everyone else, making it hard to care about his woes. For all the bizarre content of, say, Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, Kaufman’s misanthropic lead characters were believable and sympathetic; nothing about Albert is particularly likable. In fact, he's such a wingebag that you can't really blame Brad for trying to oust him from the environmental coalition. Only Wahlberg cuts an empathetic figure, and the moment he realises that Albert has cast him aside for an affair with Caterine is surprisingly moving and beautifully acted.
The philosophy of I Heart Huckabees basically boils down to two central concepts. Bernard Jaffe believes that everything and everyone is connected, and understanding this is the key to 'deconstructing' oneself and achieving a state of absolute satisfaction. Caterine Vauban on the other hand is your garden-variety chaos-theorist who sees life as a series of random, unrelated events and believes that no action has any bearing on any other. All of which is all very well, and it’s great that a Hollywood film is even bothering to address such ideas, but the movie is very confused about where it wants to take them. Far too often the film descends into shouting matches between characters, and the only scene to deliver on a 'serious' level is the one in which an outraged Albert and Tommy end up at dinner with a family of hypocritical fuel-guzzling all-American Christian capitalists.
Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy. There's usually something to look at or laugh about, whether it’s Vivian nonchalantly stalking Albert through the Huckabees store, Albert and Tommy finding blissful enlightenment by hitting each other in the face with large rubber balls, or Brad’s obsession with Shania Twain's upcoming appearance at the company's environmental gala (the country-pop queen even has a brief cameo). The film has real visual style, and the colours of the clothing and sets are deliberately muted to provide contrast to some inventive moments, such as Albert visualising hoovering up Brad, Brad 'breastfeeding' Albert, or Bernard's face floating apart on screen. Frustrating and entertaining by turns, I Heart Huckabees may well offer more on subsequent viewings. Just try not to think about it too hard.