Mark Kermode - Heart of the matter

An existential investigation uncovers a lot of hot air. By Mark Kermode

I Heart Huckabees (15)

According to the gospel of Spinal Tap, there's a very thin line between clever and stupid. To this inarguable truism, I would add that there's an equally thin line between clever and clever dick, as proven by David O Russell's smart-alec I Heart Huckabees. A contrivedly quirky tale of an ecological campaigner who hires an existential detective agency to investigate the bizarre coincidences of his private life, I Heart Huckabees is the latest in a wave of brain-tickling, independent-spirited American movies including such diverse fare as Spike Jonze's schizophrenic character comedy Being John Malkovich, Richard Kelly's haunting dream-fantasy Donnie Darko and Paul Thomas Anderson's deliciously psychotic romance Punch- Drunk Love.

With its whimsical musings on the nature of being and nothingness (everything means something, or maybe it doesn't) and its archer-than-thou plot contrivances, I Heart Huckabees is clearly designed to enthrall the postgrad audiences who can presumably argue endlessly about its virtues over a bottle of red wine and a pack of Gitaines non-filters. Yet, from its annoyingly indecipherable title (that icon is pronounced "heart" rather than "love") to its laboriously surreal visuals (digital images disintegrate into cubist chaos, dream sequences abound), Russell's unashamedly esoteric art-fest offers only sporadic bursts of satirical entertainment, many of which are in danger of being swamped by the smart-arsed smugness of the project as a whole.

Chief among the film's fleeting pleasures is Mark Wahlberg, playing scene-stealing second fiddle to such bankable stars as Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law and Naomi Watts. Wahlberg plays Tommy Corn, a disillusioned firefighter and errant patient of husband-and-wife psycho-detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Hoffman and Tomlin). Tommy's work and home life are in meltdown in the wake of his growing anxiety about the dangerous effects of fossil fuels (he thinks his fire truck uses too much petrol and rides to the rescue on a bike) and a growing awareness that reality itself may well be bunk. When sensitive tree-hugger and leading light of the Open Spaces Coalition Albert Markovski (played by Rushmore graduate Jason Schwartzman) signs up for existential investigation, he is promptly sidetracked by Tommy, who turns him on to the nihilistic teachings of rival philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert).

Soon, subtle psychological inquiry gives way to head-banging self-abuse, as Albert and Tommy seek solace in the temporary obliteration of the self achieved by hitting each other in the face with a basketball. Meanwhile, slimy corporate exec Brad Stand (Jude Law) seizes sinister power of Tommy's preservationist group, and his formerly glamorous girlfriend Dawn (Watts), a "spokesmodel" for the Huckabees corporation, begins bingeing on fatty foods and modelling Bo-Peep bonnets in the manner of an "Amish bag lady". And if you think that all sounds pretentiously convoluted, believe me, you are not alone. Despite the overabundance of unusual sights on offer, the vision that haunted me most during the screening of I Heart Huckabees was of writer/director Russell contorting himself into some tantric yoga position that allowed him simultaneously to slap his own back and kiss his own arse.

While Hoffman and Tomlin goof it up for all they're worth (the former in a crazeee mop-top wig) and Law resorts to his default setting as a handsome but vacuous vessel for nothing very much (see the recent remake of Alfie), Wahlberg alone seems to remember that emotional involvement rather than cerebral masturbation lies at the heart of all great drama. Having proved his versatile dramatic mettle in Anderson's sparkling Boogie Nights and Russell's own Gulf war drama Three Kings, the artist formerly known as Marky Mark makes an impressive stab at negotiating the lunatic ramblings of the I Heart Huckabees script without losing the attention or affection of the audience. Yet try as he might, Wahlberg cannot single-handedly ground a balloon that is filled to bursting with cinematic hot air. Instead we have to make do with the depressing sight of Huppert enduring another of her now obligatory masochistic sex scenes (this time it's copulation in a face-smearing mud-pit), and suffer a load of pseudo-satirical guff about cod philosophy and corporate commercialism penned with neither the wit nor wisdom of the Charlie Kaufman screenplays (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) to which this so clearly aspires.

The result of all this hi-falutin academic indulgence is to leave the audience long-ing for the narrative simplicities of a production-line Hollywood melodrama: if this is smart modern American cinema, then give me good old-fashioned multiplex stupidity. Despite clearly being such a personal project for Russell, and notwithstanding the suggestion of its excruciating title, the one thing that I Heart Huckabees lacks most of all is heart.