'Huckabees' is hard to love

David O. Russell's film has big stars but lacks emotional heft.

A popular toothpaste used to claim it put an "invisible shield" onto your choppers. I sometimes feel that way at the movies - as if an invisible shield stood between me and the screen, letting the picture through but filtering out emotional rapport.

This happened with "I [heart] Huckabees." It's a smart picture, with three philosophers among its characters, and the story deals with strong sentiments such as love, professional rivalry, and romantic jealousy. So why didn't I feel anything deeper than mild curiosity?

I think it's because David O. Russell hasn't yet developed enough filmmaking savvy to juggle so many intellectual, emotional, and narrative elements. He's clever and ambitious, but perhaps too much so. He needs to temper his intelligence with more delicate human values, and put his ambition into a better balance with his still-developing cinematic skill.

The story centers on Albert, a young environmentalist (Jason Schwartzman) at war with a corporate yuppie (Jude Law) whose retail chain, Huckabees, wants to gobble some land Albert wishes to preserve.

More important, Albert thinks he's being plagued by coincidental events whose meaning lies in their very mysteriousness. So he hires a duo (Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin) who call themselves existential detectives and claim deep understanding of the cosmos. Also on hand are Albert's newest ally (Mark Wahlberg) and the yuppie's gorgeous girlfriend (Naomi Watts) plus a French existential detective (Isabelle Huppert) who's gone over to the dark side.

This plot is complicated, as you can tell from that abbreviated outline. One of the movie's problems is that it simply has more characters than it needs - and more than Mr. Russell is prepared to mold in three-dimensional ways.

He's made three features so far, and while some consider his "Three Kings" a political film classic, only his first feature, "Spanking the Monkey," strikes me as a fully rewarding movie.

Maybe Russell put such hard work into "I [heart] Huckabees" that it became more of a mind-teasing puzzle for him than the emotional exploration it could have been.

Rated R; contains vulgar language and explicit sex.

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