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Being and Fluffiness

"I Heart Huckabees" inspects the nature of our strip-mall universe.

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Schwartzman's Albert is a poetry-writing — and worse, -reciting — environmentalist. He hires an existential detective agency to find out why he can't get it together as director of the local branch of Open Spaces, a national group seeking to balance the paving of America with a few trees. The agency is run by the Jaffes, a husband-and-wife duo played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman in, respectively, flaky artist and nutty professor modes.

Unlike most detective agencies, the Jaffes spy on their clients. Knowing you are being watched would seem to defeat the purpose, but Tomlin and Hoffman aren't after secrets. They want to observe mundane behavior. Toothbrushing and business meetings are noted with the studious observation usually afforded dreams.

Schwartzman's antagonist is Brad Stand (Jude Law), a smarmy, devilishly cunning publicity executive for Huckabees, a behemoth big-box retail chain. It stands in for Wal-Mart and Target — huge, dreadfully cheerful and smugly confident that the masses wait with bated breath for the next colorful commercial. Making it a self-described everything store is one of the movie's smart subtleties, since it deals comically with the philosophy of existence and the true nature of "everything."

With the sides of good and evil clearly drawn, Mark Wahlberg is introduced as a firefighter experiencing a post-9/11 syndrome that causes him to question the use of petroleum and the meaning of life. As the symbol for a giant middle class slowly awakening to the ideas of the fringe, he finds his center in shoving people. Spitting out jumbled riffs on sweatshops and Sartre, he's all philosophical left feet, a tense ball of indignation and anxiety trying to work through moral dilemmas. Lost in theoretical purgatory, he vacillates between the existentialism of the Jaffes and the nihilism of rogue student Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), who encourages him to use petroleum with unrestricted glee. The world is lost to the Huckabees, she insists, and there's nothing we can do about it.

"I Heart Huckabees" contains all the topics du jour of recent documentaries like "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "What the Bleep Do We Know?!" and presents them with irreverence and charm. It offers tasty lines to chew on, usually provided by the movie's worst characters. Stand and his girlfriend, Dawn (Naomi Watts), Huckabees' bubbly spokesmodel, are proto-alphas right out of Huxley. They're the kind of confident go-getters who take immeasurable pride in doing a great job, but aren't all that interested in what they accomplish. "You gotta reach people quick," Brad asserts after wresting control of Open Spaces from Albert. "They don't want poetry. They don't have time for it."

Director Russell fills his film with the kind of trenchant and biting satire he's known for and sugars it with a fair helping of farce. As acerbic and funny as he often is, he could have been more judicious with the jokes. Russell admirably reveals his intentions with unhurried care, but can't resist punching up scenes with broad sight gags and physical comedy. There's something in here to give just about everyone a laugh, which is less of a good thing than you might think.

The irony is that the movie succumbs to the very things it ridicules. It seems to have been test-marketed out of synch, as if it realized too late that, in order to get made, it had to please the same people it was hoping to satirize. The result is a hesitant personality, a mirror opposite of Wahlberg's struggling firefighter. "I Heart Huckabees" has a very sharp mind, just not enough heart. *** S

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