David O. Russell has always dangled on the edge -- from the incest comedy ''Spanking the Monkey'' to his biggest hit, 1999's prescient Gulf War phantasmagoria, ''Three Kings.'' But his latest experiment in random raucousness might just be his strangest movie yet. In the ensemble comedy ''Huckabees,'' Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are existential detectives who track their clients' every move in hopes of helping them answer the Big Questions. When a wussy environmentalist (Jason Schwartzman) enlists their help to better understand his conflict with a rising executive at Huckabees department stores (Jude Law), their bumbling behavior sets off a bizarre chain of events. (Want more? Well, what could be weirder than appearances from Tippi Hedren and Shania Twain?)
''I kept saying to David, 'I'm not the smartest person in the world, but do you even want this to be accessible?''' laughs Hoffman, who reveals that his on-screen Beatlesque hairstyle ''is really my hair! Wigs are painful and sticky and hot. I haven't worn one since 'Hook.'''
Mark Wahlberg -- who also appeared in ''Kings'' -- plays hysterical firefighter Tommy Corn, and here he finally got a chance to hone his little-seen comedic skills. ''If you were handed this script, you wouldn't say that Mark Wahlberg should play the role,'' he says. ''But David doesn't want me doing the same thing over and over again. I was studying [author, former Tibetan monk, and father of Uma] Bob Thurman and Buddhism and 'The Jewel Tree of Tibet' for months on end. He's asking actors to do some pretty outrageous stuff.'' And while he agrees that ''Huckabees'' is hardly lightweight, he hopes ''that people will go to it and think about and debate some of these issues. David's movies are good for me and they are good for film. They are always a learning experience.''
WHAT'S AT STAKE Russell's rep. He'll need that great cast to get audiences -- and critics -- to warm up to a talky comedy with a pretzel plot.