WASHINGTON - In person, David O. Russell is a lot like his new movie, "I (Heart) Huckabees": highly intelligent, scatterbrained, a bit goofy, concerned about political and social problems but ultimately optimistic about the future.
"Huckabees," a comedy about such unwieldy topics as confronting one's relationship to the infinite, is the first movie in five years for Russell, the writer-director of "Three Kings" and "Flirting With Disaster."
Besides existentialism, the movie also addresses the dangers of sprawling development, the insidious marketing tactics of retailers like Wal-Mart and U.S. support of oppressive, oil-rich regimes.
A filmmaker who incorporates all this into a slapstick comedy isn't likely to be a straightforward interview subject. Russell doesn't go through the motions, earnestly working in his well-rehearsed talking points. Sometimes he's talking for ten minutes straight about Eastern philosophy and theoretical physics; sometimes he's fishing videotapes out of his luggage to show faux-infomercials he made with the stars of "Huckabees" or clips of his new documentary on Iraq, "Soldiers Pay."
If he's hard to keep up with, so is "Huckabees." But like the movie, he's also funny. And he never passes up a chance to provoke thought. For example, most filmmakers settle on titles that aren't likely to confuse or alienate audiences, but not Russell, who substitutes a heart symbol for the word "Love."
"I just like that it has a heart in it, and I like that it's one where people are like, 'Is it "I Love Huckabees" or "I Heart Huckabees"?'" he says. "I like that people have some dissension over that, and it makes you think about using language."
Specifically, "Huckabees" concerns a bumbling pair of detectives (Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin) who investigate existential crises instead of crimes. They are hired by an environmental activist (Jason Schwartzman) concerned that a corporate executive from the Huckabees discount retail chain (Jude Law) is trying to take over his anti-sprawl coalition.
Russell also makes room for Mark Wahlberg as a firefighter who refuses to use petroleum, Naomi Watts as the bubbly Huckabees spokesmodel and French star Isabelle Huppert as a rival of the existential detectives.
Bizarre material for a movie that gets laughs from people smacking each other in the face with a rubber ball - but that's Russell. His first movie, "Spanking the Monkey," was a black comedy about incest. "Flirting With Disaster" was a screwball comedy anchored by a wrenching emotional quest: an adopted man's search for his biological parents. "Three Kings," set in the aftermath of the Gulf War, began as a lightweight heist caper and transformed into a searing indictment of the U.S. failure to support the postwar Iraqi uprising.
"I just put what I'm naturally passionate about into the movie," Russell says. "And with slapstick and comedy, I will not be repressed in that area."
In the case of existentialism, Russell found that profundity and humor go hand in hand when trying to wrap one's head around the infinite. He consulted leading physicists while researching the script, and found out that many believe there are ten dimensions.
"They say that 500 years from today, we could be regarded like the people from Columbus' time who thought the world was flat," Russell says. "We only see up, down, in, out, left and right. Those are our dimensions - and time. They say there's six more. So right now, my brain, my cognitive daily brain is going, 'What? Huh? Wha? I need a sandwich for lunch, what are you talking about?'"
And from that disconnect springs comedy. Pondering the infinite "completely scrambles our brain, but that's what I find humorous and also what I find magical about it," Russell says.
Russell, who's 46 but looks at least a decade younger, found actors able to get on his wavelength. He struck up a friendship with Schwartzman after the actor, now 24, starred in 1998's "Rushmore," and began writing a screenplay for Schwartzman that explored some of the same themes as "Huckabees." Then he had a dream about a detective following him and observing his every move - but not investigating a crime - and set the previous script aside.
Schwartzman's character, who recites earnest, badly written poetry and hands out anti-sprawl fliers in parking lots, is "me in my 20s," said Russell, who worked for a Washington think tank and as a political activist after graduating from Amherst College in 1981.
Perhaps because he was playing a version of the director's younger self, Schwartzman prepared for the role by hanging out with Russell for months before shooting began.
"We'd just spend time together, we'd go for hikes. We just talked. I think establishing trust and becoming intimate friends was our version of rehearsing," Schwartzman says.
With Hoffman, Russell had to approach the man he describes as "the reason I got into cinema" and ask him to grow his hair and comb it downward into a Beatlesque mop. Despite his appearance, however, Hoffman delivers a serene, grounded performance.
"Dustin asked me to come to his house and read the script out loud to him, when we first met, and it took two days," Russell says. "He wanted to hear and feel it how I feel it. I think that's maybe why he played it the way he did."
Although Russell and George Clooney did not get along on the set of "Three Kings," Clooney's co-star, Wahlberg, was eager to work with Russell again as the frazzled, hypersensitive firefighter Tommy Corn.
"Mark and I love each other, we're very close. Which is an odd couple. I went to college, he went to jail - we're very different," Russell says. "But for some reason we trust each other."
Tommy's sensitivity to U.S. dependence on foreign oil shows that Russell hasn't left the issues from "Three Kings" behind.
Warner Bros., which released "Three Kings" in 1999, financed "Soldiers Pay," a documentary about the current war in Iraq that Russell co-directed with two younger filmmakers this year. The studio planned to couple the documentary with a pre-election rerelease of "Three Kings."
But Warner Bros. backed away from those plans, and "Soldiers Pay" will be released instead by the independent distributor Cinema Libre Studios.
"They thought it was asking too many questions about the war and the occupation,' Russell says.
Russell shows a clip from the documentary, in which soldiers talk about stealing cash and valuables from the homes of wealthy Iraqis - "Three Kings" redux, except it really happened. But rather than mope about the state of affairs in Iraq, Russell seems to find joy in doing what little he can to needle the Bush administration.
A similar sunny disposition pervades "Huckabees."
"That's the most daring thing about it, is its optimism," Russell said. "It's sincere. We're not ridiculing these ideas."