Hurlyburly (1998)

Hurlyburly (1998)
  • Time: 122 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama
  • Director: Anthony Drazan
  • Cast: Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Chazz Palminteri, Anna Paquin, Meg Ryan


Hurly-burly is an adaptation of David Rabe’s well known play about the intersecting lives of several Hollywood players and wannabes who’s personal lives threaten to veer into a catastrophe more interesting than anything they’re peddling to the studios.

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  • The story is almost inconsequential. Just know that Sean Penn headlines Hurlyburly’s mother lode of a cast and he is electrifying. But if you need a little handholding through the backdrop to Penn’s display of his acting prowess, here’s what you need to know:

    Hollywood Hills. A little while ago. Penn plays Eddie, a casting agent on a downward spiral of drugs and decadence. But the drugs don’t work, they just make things worse. His roommate and business partner Micky (Kevin Spacey) has been squiring former flame Darlene (Robin Wright Penn) around town. Though Eddie initially gave his blessing, Mickey and Darlene’s relationship is truly, madly, deeply irking him. Mickey, amused at the ball of chaos Eddie has rolled himself into, offers to relinquish Darlene. “Things happen,” Mickey explains, “but if this bothers you, I won’t see her again. It’s not worth our friendship.” So Mickey does a little matchmaking and Eddie and Darlene try to renew their volatile relationship.

    However far Eddie falls, he can always count on his other friend Phil (Chazz Palminteri) to fall further. That’s why they connect. Phil is Eddie’s reality check. “I have thoughts sometimes that could break my head open,” Phil says. Thoughts of reconciling with a wife who doesn’t want to, thoughts of reaching their newborn baby that he can’t, thoughts of revving up an acting career that won’t get started, thoughts of having control over his karmic evolution. They’re all swirling around, eroding his head and Palminteri destroys you with the depths of Phil’s misery. He can’t control himself and when he tries to, things end up worse than they were. He has no axis, no anchor. There’s no redemption for this lost soul; he’s too far gone.

    David Rabe’s play, from which Hurlyburly is adapted, has been a magnet of controversy since its debut ten years earlier. One of the main points of controversy was the women’s roles, which many felt was misogynistic. Well, the point has its validity. Darlene has a history of juggling two men at a time without an ounce of guilt; Mickey and Eddie receive a “care package” in the form of Donna (Anna Paquin), an underaged hitchhiker their friend Artie (a terrifically smarmy Garry Shandling) picked up; then there’s Bonnie (Meg Ryan), the exotic dancer who gets thrown out of her own car by Phil. On the one hand, why introduce these women in this particular light? Yet on the other, do we really expect men like Phil, Eddie and Mickey to meet normal women? These men don’t know how to deal with anything in their lives, least of all a woman.

    Though the women are secondary characters, their complicated natures not only serve as catalysts to the men’s self-discoveries but also as the film’s moral compass. Darlene, played with bruised elegance by Wright Penn, lives like the men — why should we think her immoral? She answers to her soul, she’s not in the existential quandary Eddie has put himself in. Bonnie’s judgment may lapse at times but she has a core of humanity. She also has one of the film’s best lines: “I think I’m going to need a magnifying glass to find what’s left of your good points,” she tells Eddie. Donna, though thrown into one of the more questionable situations in the film, is the one character in complete control of her life. I’m a bit ambivalent about Paquin’s performance. Though she plays the role with the naivete and innocence it requires, there’s something incomplete about her portrayal.

    But it’s Penn’s show all the way. His kinetic intensity seems to have only improved with age and, as masterful as Nicolas Cage was in Leaving Las Vegas, Penn’s turn in Dead Man Walking should have won the Oscar that year. From Hurlyburly’s first scene to its last, Penn delivers not just the fireworks but the subtlety as well. Witness Spacey’s monologue as he reunites Eddie and Darlene. Spacey should be the focus of attention; after all, he’s doing all the talking. But watch Penn — how he reacts, how he conveys so much with so little. Then contrast it as he completely unravels in front of Bonnie. His state of being has become so unbearable, he needs some sort of gratification and release and the only way he feels he can do that is for Bonnie to perform fellatio on him. Penn is completely in each moment but he’s not only there for himself; he connects with whomever he’s in the scene with. Anne Heche does the same thing — it’s the secret to their watchability. How wonderful it would be if those two were cast in a film together.

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