In 1984, playwright David Rabe got audiences talking with his acerbic off-Broadway production "Hurlyburly", an unflinching look at the rampant nihilism of modern life. And while a number of directors approached Rabe in the hopes of bringing "Hurlyburly" to the screen, it wasn't until director Anthony Drazan ("Imaginary Crimes") approached the Rabe that things were set in motion. Together, Rabe and Drazan converted the three-hour long play (which only had a condominium living room as a setting) into a two-hour long screenplay (with a significantly increased scope with respect to settings). Sean Penn (seen recently in "A Thin Red Line") expressed interest in playing the film's protagonist, a role that he had played on the stage a number of years prior. Not long after, a number of other A-list actors signed on, yet the production still remained in limbo due to financing difficulties-- partially because the studio executives holding the purse-strings felt that Rabe's script hit a little too close to home. However, towards the end of 1998, Rabe's off-Broadway sensation finally made it to the big screen.
The morally-bankrupt universe of "Hurlyburly" is populated by an ensemble of unsympathetic characters, and the least detestable of the bunch is Eddie (Penn), a Hollywood casting agent with a non-stop gift for gab and a mean coke habit. He considers himself his own 'greatest distraction', and he is unable to hold any meaningful relationships with the people in his circle. He shares a house in the Hollywood Hills with his business partner Mickey (Kevin Spacey of "The Negotiator"), whose caustic and sardonic wit denotes a nasty sociopathic streak. He also has an emotionally-volatile friend named Phil (Chazz Palminteri of "The Usual Suspects"), an out-of-work actor predisposed to mindless acts of violence. There's also Artie (Garry Shandling), a writer friend who brings along a 'care package' for Eddie and Mickey-- a teenage girl (Anna Paquin of "The Piano" and "Amistad") willing to trade sex for room and board. The other women that round out the film include Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), the woman Eddie loves yet is unable to connect with on an emotional level, and a zoned-out stripper named Bonnie (Meg Ryan of "You've Got Mail", effectively cast against type). Together, these miserable men and women talk, get high, argue, and engage in various acts of debauchery, in a short-sighted effort to live in the moment. However, as the film progresses, Eddie finds himself increasingly despondent over the emotional aloofness around him, and his only comfort comes from taking another line of coke.
"Hurlyburly" is primarily an actor's movie, chock-full of substantive roles aimed at showcasing one's dramatic range. With the inexplicable exception of Shandling, every actor of the ensemble is given numerous moments to shine, and it is frightening to see how these actors have been able to convincingly bring the characters to life. The most notable performance of the film is delivered by Penn, whose portrayal of Eddie's gradual withdrawal through drugs is, at times, frighteningly real. Palminteri is chilling in his role as a pugnacious bully who is quick to blame and inflict pain unto others over his own misfortune. Finally, Ryan's brief appearance in the latter half of the film is certainly quite a contrast to her usually squeaky-clean roles, and it is a shame that she wasn't in the picture longer.
And while the film's performances are certainly strong, the film fails with respect to the narrative. To the casual observer, "Hurlyburly" seems crass and pointless, with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In addition to running at least twenty minutes too long, the dialogue-driven plot moves forward in fits and spurts, meandering about like a runaway train, and the audience is often left waiting for 'something' to happen. Unfortunately, the transformation of Eddie is much more subtle than in your typical film, and this undercurrent can be easily missed amidst the various acts of degeneracy that populate the screen. Furthermore, the dialogue captures the drug-induced ramblings of the characters so well that the conversations often become unintelligible. And while this certainly gives the film a certain air of authenticity, it also makes the conversations difficult to follow at times, which is not good in a dialogue-driven piece like "Hurlyburly".
If you look beneath the unsympathetic characters, the rapid-fire verbal exchanges, and the unyielding dark tone, "Hurlyburly" is essentially the story of a man trying to maintain his humanity in the face of the debasement around him. But despite a riveting performance by Penn, the whole point becomes easily lost beneath the poorly structured script and confusing dialogue.