Getting at the heart of 'Huckabees'


You'd think that if they could get Bibles in every hotel room, somebody could figure out how to get dictionaries in all of them, too. Consider your itinerant writer in Toronto, synapses clogged by a surfeit of films competing for his attention at that city's annual film festival last month. Among these items is I (heart) Huckabees, David O. Russell's first feature in five years, which was set loose last week in some cities and opens here tomorrow.

Trying to describe the movie to readers, your traveling reporter struggles for the right word.

It's a farce, to be sure: closer in spirit to Russell's Flirting With Disaster, the antic 1996 road comedy about a man's frantic search for his true identity, than to Three Kings, the acerbic 1999 action-adventure set in the first Gulf War's murky aftermath.

But what kind of farce? The word "epistemological" rises hesitantly to answer the bell. But your correspondent isn't quite sure what it means, and, as noted, hotels offer no quick relief for those who left their dictionaries at home.

Which is why the Internet was invented. "Epistemological" is, of course, an adjectival variant of "epistemology" -- which means, roughly, the study of knowledge, e.g.: Why do we know what we know?

Russell, when asked a day later whether this works, nods. His grin widens. A game is afoot.

"On the other hand," he says, pausing delicately -- or perhaps dramatically -- "you could say it was also an ontological farce. Which is the study of the state of being."

Reaction to I (heart) Huckabees will be split down the middle between those who are charmed by its blend of tilt-a-whirl comedy and philosophical light show and those who will forgo the risk of intellectual vertigo, even with a high-powered cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Naomi Watts, Isabelle Huppert, Mark Wahlberg and Jason Schwartzman cutting loose with devil-may-care exuberance.

Hoffman and Tomlin play "existential detectives" hired by a nerdy environmentalist-poet (Schwartzman) to determine why his soul has been tossed into chaos and dread by what turns out to be his Faustian bargain with a fast-track executive (Law) in a department-store chain called Huckabees. It may have something to do with the poet's unrequited obsession with the chain's incandescent spokesmodel (Watts), who's also the exec's fiancee. Wahlberg plays a firefighter who is likewise mired in eco-inspired spiritual angst.

How, one must ask, did the 46-year-old Russell get here? The route, he says, began with the Zen Center on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Russell was beguiled by the eclectic mix of New Yorkers who regularly attended the center.

"Everybody from stockbrokers to journalists to carpenters to doctors would jump into cabs and city buses to come to this place, put on robes, sit and meditate," he recalls. "I went there for five years, and thought it'd be a great setting for a comedy. But I never found a hook for the story. I had a character, a stockbroker, written specifically for Jason. So I worked on the script for two years and could never quite get it going."

It was about that time that Russell's subconscious mind provided an assist. "I had a dream where I was being followed by a woman detective who was sexy. ... It wasn't for criminal reasons but, she said, for metaphysical reasons." The character, he says, looked a lot like the role played in the movie by Huppert, a rival of Hoffman and Tomlin. "I always write my dreams down, and when I went back to look at this one, this looked like the hook I'd been looking for to get into some of the things I wanted to deal with in the other script."

One more thing: the title I (heart) Huckabees. Does Russell mind when some publications print the word "Heart" instead of the implied "Love"?

Not at all, he says. But "Heart" is not a verb, he is told.

"That's what I like about it. It fits the way the movie inverts your perception. I prefer the symbol as opposed to the word, but I'll take the word 'heart.' "

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