I Heart Huckabees

“I Heart Huckabees” is the sort of self-consciously surreal comedy that Charlie Kaufman would write, a la “Being John Malkovich” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” In fact, I believe it would have benefited from Kaufman’s involvement, for writer/director David O. Russell — though clever as all get-out — can only occasionally wrangle all his odd elements into a cohesive film.

In this high-minded, everyone-is-connected comedy, we meet a variety of people who are, in fact, connected. Their common thread is the “existential detective” agency of Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian Jaffe (Lily Tomlin), a rumpled, middle-aged, slightly daft married couple who investigate people’s lives for them, help them deconstruct themselves, and give them the means of finding peace in the world. Lots of people mistake them for therapists, an error which they and their clients find offensive.

Into Vivian and Bernard’s office walks Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a poet-activist who heads the local chapter of the Open Spaces Coalition, a tree-hugger movement that has recently been battling Huckabees. Huckabees is a chain of stores with a Target-esque visual style and a Wal-Mart-esque plan for world domination whose contribution to urban sprawl has made it unpopular in the public eye. Albert and Open Spaces have struck a deal with Huckabees, fronted by the super-smooth Brad Stand (Jude Law), to save a particular wetland area, thus preserving some nature for Open Spaces and giving Huckabees some positive P.R.

But that’s not what Albert is concerned about. What’s aroused his curiosity is the coincidence of running into the same tall African man on three occasions around town. He wants the existential detectives to find out what the coincidence means — for surely everything in life means something — and solve the mystery for him. Vivian and Bernard begin surveillance of Albert, insisting some detail of his daily routine must hold the key, and in so doing begin to offer advice and guidance on the other, non-African-stranger parts of Albert’s existence — his jealousy of Brad Stand (who has wrested control of Open Spaces from him), and his awkward relationship with his parents, for example.

Meanwhile, Brad Stand and his girlfriend, Huckabees model Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), learn of Vivian and Bernard’s services and philosophies and come to embrace them, with varied results. In addition, Albert is teamed up with Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a fireman on a similar path who is led astray by Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a rogue existential detective who preaches nihilism and randomness — the opposite of the Jaffes’ everything-means-something belief system.

The film hopscotches from one set of characters to the next, passing the point of view along like a baton. It does so merrily and cheerfully, finding comedy in the Jaffes’ old-married-couple sentence-finishing, in a run-in with the strange African man’s adoptive born-again-Christian family, in the effect that Dawn’s new-found beliefs have on her sense of fashion. (Think bonnets.)

Jason Schwartzman is, as always, a nerdy, affable leading man, and a comic actor able to hold his own with the likes of Lily Tomlin. Witness this exchange, made 10 times funnier by Tomlin and Schwartzman’s delivery:

VIVIAN: Have you ever transcended time and space?
ALBERT: Yes. No. Time, not space. No, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

But the film gets weirder as it goes, particularly in Caterine’s relationship with her new disciples Tommy and Albert, which takes an unexplained twist that involves pushing each other’s faces in the mud. (I have not even mentioned the part where Tommy and Albert hit each other in the face with large rubber balls.)

Whatever Russell is ultimately trying to say, he does a better job at trying our patience. We are accustomed to smart comedies with punchy dialogue that require some effort; but we are also used to that effort being rewarded in the end with some sort of payoff or resolution. “I Heart Huckabees” is quirky enough for me to recommend it — Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are especially a treat — but its self-satisfied braininess diminishes what could have been a truly wonderful film.

B- (1 hr., 47 min.; R, lots of harsh profanity, some brief strong sexuality.)