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TOUGH LOVE <br> 'HUCKABEES' FEATURES A SUPERIOR CAST, ITS FAIR SHARE OF LAUGHS, BUT NOTHING TO WARM UP TO

I HUCKABEES ** (out of four)

Jason Schwartzman, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Naomi Watts, Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg and Isabelle Huppert in David O. Russell's lunatic philosophical comedy. Rated R for language and muddy sex, opening tomorrow in area theaters.

There's so much to love about "I Huckabees." So let me count the reasons -- the wild, lunatic originality of the film; the mind-boggling cast willing to give it their all; the fearless braininess of all its philosophical allusions; the visual imagination; the very fact that such a film was made in a place as risk averse and downright chicken-livered as Hollywood, Calif.

Make no mistake. For the 106 minutes it takes this film to unspool, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

This, putting it mildly, is not your father's romantic comedy.

Some of my favorite people in the world do, in fact, love it -- some very good movie critics and actors and most importantly an adored member of my immediate family who, along with her friends, loves the way the film dances giddily around the possibilities of human connection.

So why don't I?

Love it, that is.

Heaven knows I laughed a few times. And marveled, too, at its unabashed braininess. What's wrong here?

The film is a catastrophic, self-indulgent mess, that's why. But then I was in the vast minority that didn't like David O. Russell's last film "Three Kings," too. And I might have liked "Flirting With Disaster" as much as I did only because Mary Tyler Moore had such a good time in it.

If you ask me, the emperor ain't wearing a stitch in "Huckabees." He's naked as a jaybird and twice as tweetiepie (without the "puddy-tat"). And I don't care if he did somehow inveigle Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law and Isabelle Huppert - Isabelle Huppert, for God's sakes - into the same film.

And while we're on the subject, don't exactly sign me up for the Jason Schwartzman fan club either. By my lights, "Rushmore" was almost as ridiculously overrated as "Three Kings."

So be aware then that there is, uhhhh, a vigorous difference of opinion on the subject of "I Huckabees." Where its partisans and I agree is this: I'm glad I saw it. I wouldn't have missed it for the world, in fact.

Here's what gives.

Schwartzman plays an environmentalist who is actively crusading against the newest landscape depredations of Huckabees, a monolithic department store chain of the Wal-Mart ilk. He even founded an organization to do so, which he tries to psych up by reading bad poetry. ("You rock, rock.")

Unfortunately, they prefer the showier ideas of Jude Law who, is blonder and less hirsute than Schwartzman and has more dimples in his smile. Not only that, his ideas include Shania Twain and any idea that includes the presence of Shania Twain at meetings is worth considering.

Law's wife is played by Naomi Watts, the spokesmodel for Huckabees who, on a daily basis, stuffs her spectacularly trim and well-turned figure into clothes that virtually scream "youth" and "energy." She is, privately, increasingly skeptical of her all-too-occasional seven minutes of connubial nocturnal bliss with her preoccupied pretty-boy husband.

So Schwartzman - who keeps running into a tall black man wherever he goes - hires two "existential detectives" to find out what's going on in his own life. They're played by Dustin Hoffman in a 1964 Beatles haircut, and Lily Tomlin, in boardroom power suits. They're going to do so every day by spying on him every waking moment - even on the john. If anything comes close to being worth the price of admission here, it's Hoffman, especially when he explains his "blanket theory of the universe."

Throw in Mark Wahlberg as an ideologically fired-up fireman who befriends Schwartzman and joins him in various wacked-out therapies.

The movie teems with real honest-to-God philosophical precepts on the fly, up to and including Pascal's location of the divine in a sphere whose circumference is everywhere and whose center is nowhere (a bit like Russell's critical reputation if you ask me.) Philosophy grad students will be in movie heaven.

Me? Not so much. I alternated chortles and sighs of annoyance for about an hour, after which the tedium finally just wore me out.

I'm glad Russell exists and functions so swimmingly in modern Hollywood. But if you want to see wonderful examples of the kind of movie he's ineptly trying to make here, see almost any film written by Charlie Kaufman or directed by Spike Jonze. "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" are as exhilarating and delightful as this movie is empty and aggravating.

All free-swinging Hollywood lunatics are, decidedly, not alike.

I don't heart "Huckabees." In fact, draw a line through my heart symbol and we'll call it a night.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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