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David O. Russell's new film, I Heart Huckabees, starts with fury (the first words we hear are unprintable ones) and ends with peace, and in between, Tippi Hedren swears, Shania Twain appears in a getup straight out of I Dream of Jeannie, Jude Law vomits into his hand, Isabelle Huppert has sex in mud, and Mark Wahlberg says, sincerely, "You hurt my feelings." It's a comedy.

"Jude owes me $100 for that vomit scene," says Russell, the film's co-writer and director, a soft-spoken, thoughtful, 46-year-old New Yorker whose previous films -- Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster and Spanking the Monkey -- also veered in tone from humour to humanism. "He bet me I would never use it."

Huckabees, which has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival tonight, is that rarity, an original movie idea. It poses vast questions -- Is human life everything or nothing? Are we infinitely interconnected or alone in blackness? -- in rapid-fire dialogue. It sprang from a dream Russell had five years ago, in which a woman detective followed him around, and retains the elusive logic of a dream.

In it, an unhappy environmentalist named Albert (Jason Schwartzman) is trying to stop Huckabees, a Wal-Mart-like chain, from building a megastore on unspoiled marshland. To help him sort through some coincidences, Albert hires married existential detectives Bernie and Vivian (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), who search his life and soul for clues to his despair. Their investigation branches out to include Huckabees' alpha-male PR man (Law), his spokesmodel girlfriend (Naomi Watts), a perplexed firefighter (Wahlberg), and a rival French nihilist (Huppert).

"Mostly, I wanted to have a good time and deal with some ideas from my former incarnations" (specifically, activism and philosophy), says Russell, who didn't become a filmmaker until he was 30. At Amherst College in Massachusetts (from which he graduated in 1981 with a degree in English and political science, after first dropping out), he studied under novelist Mary Gordon and renowned religion scholar Robert Thurman, Uma's dad.

(Hoffman's character -- and shaggy haircut -- is based on Thurman. Tomlin's sexy, snug-suited detective is based on Russell's notion of a European scientist. "I got very involved with her makeup," he says.)

After graduation, he tried his hand at journalism and fiction writing, but found it "too hard." Switching to activism, he raised funds to send eye doctors to Central America, and eventually went there himself to teach literacy.

When he returned, he led community organizations in Maine and Massachusetts, where he began to use video equipment to document housing conditions; his first film was a short documentary for a local cable channel about the harassment of a Central American immigrant high-school student. "It was before computer editing," he says, laughing. "It took me about nine years to edit this 13-minute film."

He started making shorts; eventually, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts led him to the Sundance Institute, where Spanking the Monkey was a festival darling in 1994.

"When I became a filmmaker, I turned all the intensity of my activism inward," Russell says.

He went into therapy, and later studied at the first Japanese Zendo -- a kind of Buddhist spiritual centre -- in the United States, on Manhattan's Upper East Side. In preparation for Huckabees, he induced Schwartzman (best known as the prep-schooler in Rushmore) and Wahlberg (who co-starred in Three Kings) to meditate and pray with him. "Well, Mark prays a lot already, he's a good Catholic," Russell says.

His next project after Huckabees was supposed to be a fall rerelease of Three Kings -- about a trio of self-interested American soldiers at the end of the first Gulf War -- timed to the U.S. presidential election, and shown with Russell's latest documentary, a 35-minute look at how various U.S. vets and Iraqis view the current war.

"But Warner Bros. said the doc was too political to release, and pushed Three Kings back to the New Year," Russell says. "It's not a strident documentary. I'm not in it. It says simply that Iraqis are happy to have Saddam gone, but not sure the world is better off with this war. But Warner Bros. freaked out."

He plans to release it on the Internet, on

Russell is also already planning the Huckabees DVD, which will include "about three hours of outtakes. I love shooting improvisations, trying all kinds of takes, just letting the camera roll. Dustin said it's like we're rehearsing the scene the whole time instead of actually shooting it. I don't like to cut because when you do, everyone takes a breath, the makeup people come in -- the artifice comes back."

It's clear that, to Russell, the dilemmas posed in Huckabees, while funny, are no joke. "I really do spend most of my time thinking about these issues," he says. "Those lines of Naomi's -- 'You can't deal with my infinite nature,' and 'Intimacy is a combo of infinites' -- I believe all that. Yet when she says it, it sounds crazy. So I'm aiming for the people who think it's funny and crazy, but also right." He laughs. "I'm afraid it might be a small group."