In I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell's madly verbose metaphysical screwball comedy, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a stringy-haired environmentalist with a bit of an anger-management problem, experiences one of those everyday coincidences that make you think, Gee, maybe there really is a hidden order to this thing called life. Albert's coincidence isn't all that dizzying: He spies a spindly, elegant-featured Sudanese man in three different places. Holy unity of existence! Albert generally devotes his energy to righteous causes, like planting trees in a mall parking lot. This particular coincidence, though, nags at him just enough to inspire him to retain the services of Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), a fuddy-duddy pair of ''existential detectives'' who are like personalized cosmic shrinks. They agree to show him the meaning of life.
I Heart Huckabees is heady enough to be mistaken for one of the twisty-minded comedies of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. In this case, however, that really would be a mistake: What we're dealing with is an exercise in faux-Kaufman reality bending. Russell, the director of Three Kings and Spanking the Monkey, cowrote the movie's script with Jeff Baena, and he has devised a lot of coy highfalutin banter that's every bit as ephemeral as soda-pop bubbles. The actors burp it out with a vengeance, but they never become human beings we care about. As a madcap comedy of existence, I Heart Huckabees is literally full of itself.
Upon meeting Albert, Bernard holds up a white blanket and pokes it to demonstrate the principle that ''everything is the same, even if it's different.'' That sounds like a mystical dollop of promising insight, and I kept waiting, eagerly, for the film to develop it. Could it mean, for example, that Albert and his hated rival, Brad Stand (Jude Law), an amoral young sales executive in the Huckabees chain of retail superstores, are really comrades under the skin? Or that our corporate selves aren't our ''real'' selves? Or that Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a sexy French philosopher whose nothing-matters nihilism marks her as the opposite of the Jaffes, is actually their philosophical twin? At one point Bernard repeats his theory, and thanks to some slip-sliding editorial tricks we see two people's faces edge into each other to illustrate it. Yet it remains little more than an abstract nugget of pseudo-wisdom: Everything is connected to everything else! Alert the media.
Hoffman, in a graying bowl cut that makes him resemble a dowdy Sonny Bono, delivers his flowery bromides with an enthusiasm that's infectious in its utter lack of irony. He clearly relishes the role of an ontological dweeb Buddhist who's so centered he sounds cracked (but is, in fact, utterly sane). He hawks enlightenment like a salesman out to give you the deal of a lifetime on cheap office furniture. Tomlin, as his accomplice, looks like an Avon lady in her troweled-on mascara, and she matches Hoffman in old-school charm. These two are fun to watch long after we've figured out that, like everyone else in I Heart Huckabees, they're babbling on about everything and nothing.
From his first feature, the incest comedy Spanking the Monkey, David O. Russell has shown an insidious ability to spotlight his own edginess, and he works that show-off cred to the max this time. Jason Schwartzman, in his most prominent role since Rushmore, runs around like a disheveled hippie prepster, spouting conundrums in articulate hyperdrive. Schwartzman has grown more handsome with age, but in this movie he suggests Tom Cruise body-snatched by the world's most earnest, talky, and guilt-ridden grad student. Albert and the fellow designated by the Jaffes as his ''other,'' a firefighter named Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), take turns pelting each other with a big red plastic ball to clear their identities. In the film's idea of a love scene, Albert and Caterine dunk each other's faces in a puddle of dirty water. Oh, the holy allegorical mud! Did I mention that Naomi Watts plays a bendy-limbed Huckabees spokesmodel undergoing a crisis of conscience?
What in the Buddha's name is going on in I Heart Huckabees? Russell has come up with a grab bag of ideas that don't stick with you because they don't stick together. Albert, plumbing the meaning of existence, is also on a crusade against suburban sprawl, as he fights the paradise-paving ways of the Huckabees corporation. Call me dim, but I never began to figure out what those two things have to do with one another. The tin-hearted Brad, in his effort to portray Huckabees as an eco-friendly outfit, has co-opted Albert's Open Spaces Coalition and made a phony PR show of the company's move to protect local wetlands (he's enlisted Shania Twain for the cause). The corporation, you see, is saving the marsh but not the woods around it. I don't know if this counts as a theory of higher unity, but isn't a film that teases us with big ideas, only to devolve into Hollywood environmental message mongering, just doing its own version of saving the marsh?