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Review: Sharp performances add life to a rambling 'Hurlyburly'

Web posted on:
Tuesday, December 29, 1998 1:09:26 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I wasn't really looking forward to seeing "Hurlyburly," director Anthony Drazan's film version of David Rabe's award-winning play about just how low the Hollywood high-life can take ambitious people when they aren't looking.

By now, my distaste for aggressively verbose filmed plays is well-documented (solely by me). You'd have to be an idiot not to know that snorting pounds of cocaine on a daily basis is enough to drive anybody around the bend, regardless of whether the bend is surrounded by palm trees or heaving artificial breasts.

What I didn't count on, though, was a devastating lead performance by Sean Penn, who really should give up acting -- as he's been threatening to do for several years now -- if he doesn't win an Academy Award this time around. (Actually, it might be more constructive if Roberto Benigni wins and Penn climbs on stage to belt him during his preconceived Pidgin English acceptance speech.)

Theatrical preview for "Hurlyburly"

Windows Media: 28k or 56k
Real: 28k or 56k

"Hurlyburly" is crawling with sharp performances, but Penn's is the flashiest and most memorable. The ensemble cast, with one notable exception, wrings the most out of their hedonism-twisted dialogue, and everyone gets to make hilariously illogical speeches about life, love, fame, fortune, sex-sex-sex, and coke-coke-coke.

It's just that drug-fried rambling, regardless of whether its in character, is still just drug-fried rambling. I know lots of people who don't make any sense at all once they get going, even without an illegal buzz. David Rabe writing it all down for our consumption doesn't make the chatter any more useful. After a while I felt like I had ants crawling all over me. And, I swear to God, I thought the movie would never end.

Treading water in a fishbowl

Like most popular plays that make it to the screen, the action feels like it's taking place in a fishbowl. However, anybody who's spent any time in Los Angeles-based entertainment circles can easily recognize that that scene is the biggest, most falsely glamorous fishbowl in the entire world. That's the whole point. If anybody speaks up and says, "Holy cow, would you look at how we're acting," all the water'll drain out.

So everyone keeps on treading instead, hoping that the next score (whether it be drugs, money, or oral sex) will suddenly open their existence up, wide-and-wonderful, and it'll all make sense. Every now and then, somebody dies in the process. And it never, ever makes sense. And they keep on treading water.

So that's what Rabe's characters are saddled with, and they spend two hours trying to strap the saddle on the audience. We follow the wanderings of a group of "friends" in the Hollywood Hills as they ... um ... do coke, verbally abuse each other, and have sex with a wide soulless variety of flesh.

Most of the scenes take place in a comfortable bungalow belonging to Eddie (Penn), an agent who's tumbling faster than everyone else. His housemate and business partner is Mickey (Kevin Spacey, pretending that dying his hair blonde means something more than Kevin Spacey has dyed his hair blonde). Their two best buddies are a lackadaisical leach named Artie (Garry Shandling), and Phil (Chazz Palminteri), a violent brute who fancies himself to be an actor.

Rabe obviously loves words, and he lets his characters go for it over and over again. This is where Penn shines brightest, because he always makes it seem like his ridiculous perceptions about the nature of existence are occurring to him right as he says them. It doesn't feel as scripted when he goes at it. He's very good at goosing the thoughts with little wordless yelps and giggles, and his darting eyes never manage to lock onto anything for too long, lest he seem capable of properly sizing up a situation.

Eddie's searching, but doesn't have a clue what it is that he's trying to find, and probably wouldn't appreciate any answer that didn't include pushing himself to near-death every evening anyway.

Palpable misogyny

As awful as this crew of galoots is, the female characters are dealt an even crummier hand. The misogyny is palpable, and not altogether implausible in its conception. A lot of women end up used and discarded in this kind of environment. We get two prime examples of the sexual flotsam in the characters played by Anna Paquin and Meg Ryan. Paquin is a teen-age runaway who Shandling finds in the elevator one day and brings home as a bedroom plaything. Soon, he hands her over to Penn and Spacey, who treat her more as a pet than an actual person. And, yes, Penn has sex with her.

Ryan, on the other hand, plays a full-grown exotic dancer who will sleep with anyone who's even remotely connected to the industry. I can understand Ryan wanting to escape her cuteness cage for once, but she's in way over her head here. Yeah, she's a hot one when she prances around in a little black bra, but her line readings are painfully flat. She's Meg Ryan when all is said and done, except that she's supposed to be stoned and Palminteri tosses her out of a moving car at one point. Tom Hanks never tosses her out of a moving car.

Penn's real-life wife, Robin Wright, plays Eddie's girlfriend, and she's the only near-likable character in the entire movie. But she doesn't get to stick around very long for that exact reason. Wright is a stunning woman who can act circles around a lot performers who receive a helluva lot more credit from the critics. I'm sorry she didn't get to do more in this movie than watch everybody bitch and snort themselves into oblivion.

Unless your child has a development deal with a major studio, it might be wise to keep him or her removed from something this tawdry. You get marijuana, cocaine, booze, broads, partial nudity, sex with the underage, and no real moral. Not that anybody expected one. Rated R. 123 minutes. It's okay to scream after a while.

Fine Line Features, a Time Warner property, is a sister company to CNN Interactive.

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