Actor Jason Schwartzman and director David O. Russell exist on the same existential plane, or so it might seem to any nonphilosophy major.
They share a similar quirky outlook, enjoy dissecting each other’s dreams and worship the same “It’s the material, stupid” approach to moviemaking.
Their ethereal paths intersect for “I ? Huckabees,” a new comedy that could double as a philosophy professor’s take-home test.
In Mr. Russell’s fourth film, his first since 1999’s “Three Kings,” Mr. Schwartzman stars as a befuddled young man who hires a pair of existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to solve why he keeps running into a tall African doorman.
Along the way, we meet Mr. Schwartzman’s work rival (Jude Law), fellow existential soul mate (Mark Wahlberg — funnier than anyone could have expected) and a French woman (Isabelle Huppert) eager to erase the detectives’ handiwork.
“I thought it was beautiful, hysterical, absurd, surreal and meaningful,” says Mr. Schwartzman of the “Huckabees’” script during a recent visit to the District along with Mr. Russell to promote the film.
The director “was very protective of it,” Mr. Schwartzman says. “You actually had to go to David’s house to read the script.”
Mr. Russell explains, a tad defensively: “You like the project to have a mystique. You haven’t done a project in five years, and you don’t want to squander it.”
The two seem chummy sharing an interview space.
Both arrive in acceptable business attire, except for their sneakers. Mr. Schwartzman dons a blue blazer over Mr. Russell’s nephew’s shirt, a last-minute gift that further seals their bond. Mr. Russell’s hair is just-woke-up disheveled.
Their chemistry surely helped “Huckabees,” given subsequent press reports revealing a near chaotic set experience.
“It was scripted pretty carefully, but with this group of people I’d like to let it become better and better,” is how Mr. Russell describes it. “I tended not to cut. I didn’t want to let the energy out of what was happening. They’d forget we were shooting. We just let the camera roll.”
“‘Huckabees’ identified the feelings I was feeling,” Mr. Schwartzman says. “I’ve asked myself these questions, not specifically but in different ways. Everybody, growing up, feels frustrated and questions things.”
“It’s always good to inquire,” Mr. Russell adds. “My heroes are the people who never stopped asking questions, not just ‘Why are we here?’ But, ‘What is this?’”
Some philosophers, Mr. Russell says, talk about how 500 years from now scientists could look back on us like we look at those from Christopher Columbus’ day and wonder how they could think the world was flat.
Mr. Russell, jotting notes to himself during the interview, begins talking about how many dimensions we acknowledge to be true, a discussion that clearly engages him.
“As soon as you enter that discussion, your fingers are pried off your reality. I do say pried because who wants to let go? What is reality? How does that affect me?”
And what better way to bring audiences into the chat room than via a no-holds-barred comedy?
“The ideas in this movie are the kind of ideas that are in more serious movies like ‘The Matrix’ and ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” the director says. “I take these ideas quite seriously, but I also wanna have fun.”
“Huckabees” began back in 1990 as a short film idea. He eventually ditched it to bankroll “Spank the Monkey,” his 1994 indie debut.
Years later, after “Three Kings” cemented his position as a rising director of offbeat yarns, he wanted to, as he puts it, “go into the storehouse of my spiritual life.”
He envisioned the movie as an ensemble comedy centered around a Zendo, a kind of Zen study center, in New York.
“All these people go there to investigate the consciousness of the soul,” he says.
He had a premise, a setting and an actor — Mr. Schwartzman — attached, but he didn’t have a story to go along with them. Mr. Russell voluntarily rescinded the green light the project had received and started anew.
That decision only increased Mr. Schwartzman’s respect for the director.
“That was a defining moment in our relationship,” the actor says. “He displayed his creative dignity and faith and pride.”
Mr. Russell later revived the project after experiencing a dream in which he was tailed by a female detective — not for criminal wrongdoing but for “spiritual, existential and metaphysical reasons,” as Mr. Schwartzman recalls the pitch.
The young actor’s on-set experience must not have been too onerous, given how chummily they chat to promote their film.
“It would have been equally amazing had there been no film in the camera,” he says of the process.