I ♥ manic depression

David O. Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees is a star-studded screwball farce wrapped in existential psychotherapy

SOUL SURVEILLANCE<br>Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are existential detectives hitting the pavement for their nervous clients in David O. Russell’s <i>I </i>

Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are existential detectives hitting the pavement for their nervous clients in David O. Russell’s I

I ♥ Huckabees
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Tomlin, Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts. Directed by David O. Russell. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

In the smart, nutty new film by David O. Russell (Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster, Spanking the Monkey), Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, a team of “existential detectives” who use a combination of new-age psychotherapy and private-detective-style snooping to rehabilitate, or maybe just rearrange, the conflicted identities of their troubled clients.

One of those clients is Albert Markovsky (Jason Schwartzman), a frustrated environmental activist (and talentless poet) who turns to the Jaffes after a series of “coincidental” encounters with a very tall, very skinny African wearing a doorman’s uniform. Albert is also having particular troubles with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a young executive who is trying to build a new Huckabees chain store on some marshland while also placating the environmentalists.

But Brad has troubles too, and by the time his girlfriend and corporate icon (Naomi Watts) lurches into an identity crisis of her own, he has begun seeking the Jaffes’ help as well. Meanwhile, Jason has begun to bond with his designated “other,” a fireman named Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), whose post-9/11 depression has wrecked his marriage and made him so suspicious of petroleum products that he rides to fires on a bicycle. And the Jaffes are increasingly agitated over the intrusive reappearances of their professional nemesis Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a seductive French author and practicing nihilist who is soon making powerful claims on the attention of Tommy and Jason.

There’s much that’s at least temporarily perplexing in the farcical sprawl of all this, but Huckabees floats delectably among several kinds of comedy, not the least of which deals in teasing flashes of wit and intellect.

The general air of spoofy put-on suggests we’re in Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) territory, but Russell’s stinging, allusive touches of contemporary topicality prove otherwise. For all of its satirical goofing and fanciful whimsy, the oddball comedy in this film seems surprisingly alive to the rampant confusions of American life circa 2004.

Hoffman and Tomlin make a particularly delightful comic team here.

Law and Watts, especially the latter, continue to function as intriguingly chameleon personae. Schwartzman holds up well with a role that seems to cry out for Ben Stiller, and Huppert is perfectly cast but underused.

Wahlberg’s underplaying produces the most substantial performance in the film.