Friday December 25, 1998
"Hurlyburly" takes us into the hills of Hollywood to acquaint us with a group of people we've met many times before, on the screen and in life--and would take pains to avoid whenever we could. Yet playwright-screenwriter David Rabe writes such juicy parts that he's attracted as glittering a lineup of stars for the new film version as he did for the original play 14 years ago.
We now get to see Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright Penn, Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling, Anna Paquin and Meg Ryan in roles that were created by William Hurt, Christopher Walken, Sigourney Weaver, Harvey Keitel, Jerry Stiller, Cynthia Nixon and Judith Ivey. Under Anthony Drazan's assured direction the screen cast acts just as impressively as the stage cast did, but ultimately to no more avail. The problem remains: For all Rabe's sound and fury, he doesn't come up with any profound revelations about the human condition to match the intensity of his ranting and raving, or to make up for the fact that, to put it mildly, most of his people are off-putting in the extreme without being very interesting.
The passing of time has further undermined the impact of "Hurlyburly" because it suffers in comparison with the films, for example, of Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute, who have the knack of making the dark and destructive compelling and even amusing.
Even so, in adapting his play to the screen, Rabe had a chance to create something better of it had he not been so self-indulgent of his often tortuous dialogue and trusted in the power of images to express alternating desperation, superficiality and aimlessness.
"Hurlyburly," photographed with a bleak sleekness by "Farewell My Concubine's" formidable Changwei Gu, has been opened up with considerable ease and grace, but it just doesn't know when to shut up. (And if it has the pluses of Gu's mobile camera work and the late Michael Haller's spot-on production design, it also has the assist of David Baerwald and Steve Lindsey's supportive, varied score.)
The film's talkiness erodes the impact of an absolutely galvanic Penn as Eddie, a coked-up casting director who starts coming apart when he realizes that he has fallen in love with Wright Penn's Darlene, the kind of cool, poised blond that has always cut a swath in Hollywood. Eddie didn't think he'd mind Darlene having a casual fling with his business partner and apartment mate, Mickey (Spacey), a glib, polished type that has flourished in the motion picture industry since its beginnings. (Both Penn and Spacey had first played their roles on stage.)
But unexpected jealousy has plunged Eddie into an emotional tailspin, intensified immeasurably by steady lines of cocaine. The recognition of love has caused the scales to drop from his eyes. He's forced to realize that most of the people around him live skittish, dicey existences purely on the surface, that the world may be going to hell in a handcart--the time is just as the Gulf War is about to break out--and that he's in desperate need of being loved by a woman who, enraging him further, regards him as casually as she does Mickey.
Only Mickey, played by Spacey with a delicious oiliness, may have the edge because he has magnanimously maneuvered Darlene back into Eddie's arms, making Mickey all the more attractive to her. (How a suave wheeler-dealer like Mickey can remain partners and live under the same roof with Eddie is one of the movie's key mysteries.) You can identify with Eddie's pain, and could even more so were Penn not required to do so much grandstanding.
Mickey is probably right when he observes that Palminteri's Phil makes Eddie feel that there will always be somebody lower than he is no matter how far he may fall. Phil is an ex-con with delusions of being an actor and with a terrifying streak of violence, most often directed toward women. When Eddie arranges for him to take out a likably forthright exotic dancer, Donna (Ryan), he's soon shoving her out of her car. Now Phil can gaze with pure love upon the baby he's kidnapped from his estranged young second wife, but that's scarcely enough to keep him from being an otherwise dangerous, self-deluding jerk. Shandling is Eddie's and Mickey's crass neighbor, another Hollywood wannabe, who passes on to them Bonnie (Paquin), a pretty 15-year-old drifter who proves to have a better grip on herself and the universe than everybody else.
"Hurlyburly" isn't a movie about Hollywood the way, for example, "The Big Knife" is. The Hollywood setting certainly intensifies the slipperiness of its people's existences and heightens their on-the-make natures. But since the drama does take place here, Rabe might have made more of Eddie's connection to Hollywood to reveal more of him to us. We never know if he came here with a dream of doing something creative in films or from the start was just out to make big bucks.
"Hurlyburly" means to be a scabrous screwball comedy, but it's too grueling, too heavy-handed and too obvious to be very funny. You find yourself agreeing with Donna's observation that she finds Eddie and his friends without socially redeeming value, and you're again left to wonder why, apart from casting coups, there's such a hullabaloo about "Hurlyburly."
Hurlyburly, 1998. R, for constant drug use, pervasive strong language and sexual material. A Fine Line Features presentation. Director Anthony Drazan. Producers Drazan, Richard N. Gladstein, David S. Hamburger. Executive producers H. Michael Heuser, Frederick Zollo, Nicholas Paleologos, Carl Colpaert. Screenplay by David Rabe, based on his play. Cinematographer Changwei Gu. Editor Dylan Tichenor. Music David Baerwald, Steve Lindsey. Production designer Michael Haller. Costumes Mary Claire Hannan. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. Sean Penn as Eddie. Kevin Spacey as Mickey. Robin Wright Penn as Darlene. Chazz Palminteri as Phil. Garry Shandling as Artie. Anna Paquin as Donna. Meg Ryan as Bonnie.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times