By Jeffrey M. Anderson
In a 1999 interview granted not long before her death, the great film critic Pauline Kael noted a certain "lostness" in life that wasn't showing up in our movies.
Since then, a few youn filmmakers have attempted to grasp it. Some films -- Ghost World, Lost in Translation and Before Sunset -- have attempted to find a kind of Zen place within it. Others, such as The Matrix, Fight Club and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have tried a more direct approach.
David O. Russell's comedy I Heart Huckabees attempts an in-your-face exploration, asking -- even demanding -- nothing less than the meaning of life. Inevitably, it only intermittently succeeds. Whereas a few viewers may find their lives significantly changed, most others will only come away with a headache.
The film's circle of characters begins with Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) who experiences a trio of coincidences and seeks the help of an "existential detective agency," run by Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin).
Their investigation introduces them to Brad Strand (Jude Law), a PR man for the Huckabees corporation (a kind of Wal-Mart like superstore) and his girlfriend, the "face" of Huckabees, model Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts).
This gorgeous, superficial couple contribute some of the film's funniest moments, especially when they begin to undergo a spiritual crisis of their own. Dawn rejects her good looks and shows up to work dressed in big baggy overalls. ("You look like an Amish bag lady," someone tells her.)
To be sure, director/co-writer Russell packs I Heart Huckabees with endlessly clever visual and verbal gags, from a scene in which characters whap each other in the face with a big rubber ball, to the bizarre "visions" Albert conjures while zipped up in a sensory-depravation bag.
Mark Wahlberg also stars as firefighter Tommy Corn who has lost faith in Bernard and Vivian and fallen in with a French nihilist, Catherine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert).
Tommy and Albert become friends, and together try to find a happy medium between "finding your true essence" and "nothing matters."
The explosively brilliant anti-war film Three Kings (1999) provided the perfect setting for Russell's brand of insanity: soldiers stationed far from home, baking in the bullet-riddled sands of Iraq. Anything could happen and the pace was exhilarating.
But I Heart Huckabees wallows in day-to-day experiences, moving through them quickly, relentlessly and without remorse. The film roars with rapid-fire chatter and a great deal of heated arguing. It becomes abrasive and oppressive, and we yearn for a break.
We also long for a kind of genuine human moment, some sort of beautiful connection with at least one of these lost souls, as Richard Linklater achieved with his current talk-heavy masterpiece Before Sunset. I Heart Huckabees gets close -- through the sequences involving Albert's coincidences with a tall, serene African man -- but abruptly steers away.
Because of this relentless pace, it's not clear if Russell believes in the ideas his film cooks up, or just wants to steamroll over them in a kind of comical, mystical frenzy. In a "lost" world like ours, we already get plenty of "too fast" and "not enough." What we need from our movies is something a little more connected.
This review previously appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.