This autumn is looking more and more like the Season of the Failed Experiment. Hot on the heels of the pretty but vacant Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow comes I Heart Huckabees, an "existential comedy" from director David O. Russell (Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings) that could have ended up either a masterpiece of genre-busting lunacy or a wannabe-absurdist washout. Guess which way the coin fell.
Mere minutes into the film, you realize that a few halfway-decent gags aside there's just no redeeming the thing. Strained whimsy and aggravated attention-drift mark Russell's rambling story of an environmental crusader (Jason Schwartzman) and the "strange" coincidence that's driving him to distraction: Three times, and in three entirely separate contexts, he's run into the same impossibly tall African. That's not much to base an obsession or a movie on, but Schwartzman's character Albert Markovski is sufficiently spooked to hire a pair of "existential detectives" (Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman) who specialize in ferreting out the reasons for such day-to-day glitches. To solve the riddle of Albert's recurring African, however, they have to examine every aspect of Albert's life, spying on him 24-7 in an attempt to identify an underlying incompleteness that's really eating at his soul.
The investigation exposes Albert's complicated rivalry with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a sales rep for a department store that's run afoul of Albert's tree-hugging priorities. Also figuring in the story is Brad's girlfriend, Dawn (Naomi Watts), a dishy spokesmodel known as "the voice of Huckabees" though it's other aspects of her anatomy that keep Albert staring guiltily in her direction.
The brainy private dicks Albert has hired believe in the interconnectedness of all things, and they keep propounding their optimistic metaphysics in impromptu lectures that wreak havoc with the movie's momentum. By the umpteenth time you've heard a simple blanket submitted as an analogy for the cosmic stuff of which we're all made, you can practically hear Richard Linklater crying, "Get on with it!" from the back of the theater. Yet the movie also finds time to show us Watts' now-disillusioned sex symbol moping around in a Dolly Madison bonnet and Isabelle Huppert of 8 Women (who plays the investigators' arch-rival) being smeared with mud and violated from behind. Few movies attain this difficult balance of pretension and venality Michel Gondry's execrable Human Nature was one but that's not to imply that Huckabees is particularly memorable. Too self-regarding to be madcap and too foolish to be profound, it's the sort of misshapen folly you'll stumble upon on cable (or the Internet) 15 years from now and wonder what anybody involved with it was thinking.
All, that is, except for Mark Wahlberg, who emotes heroically in the role of Tommy Corn, a firefighter who gets paired with Albert in a kind of spiritual buddy system. An emotionally wounded hothead who's desperate to believe in something but can't help exploding on contact with hollow platitudes, Tommy is exactly the friend you'd wish for if you had to enter a support group of any stripe. Wahlberg plays the character for all it's worth. Still, it's a bit of a surprise to see him sticking around to the bitter end of the film. In real life, he would have stomped off long before.