Hurlyburly (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Hurlyburly is a talky film - the entire movie is constructed around lengthy sequences of dialogue where the characters talk and talk and talk, often saying nothing. However, because the vocal rhythms are so perfect, the words are so well-chosen, and the performances are so powerful, listening to so much talk is a pleasure, not a chore. It's possible to lose oneself in Hurlyburly, precisely because nearly every line has a hypnotic quality. The action and suspense is in the words, not the deeds. We don't wait to see what the characters will do next, we wait to hear what they will say next.

As is often true of verbose movies, Hurlyburly is based on a play - in this case, David Rabe's blistering 1984 off-Broadway sensation. Director Anthony Drazan was the third film maker to approach Rabe for the rights to the production, but the first one in which the writer could sense a "personal involvement." Despite an A-list cast, Drazan had difficulty obtaining the necessary funding to make the film, in large part because many Hollywood big wigs saw a little too much of themselves in the characters fashioned by the uncompromising script.

Central to Hurlyburly is Eddie (Sean Penn), a fast-talking, coke-sniffing Hollywood casting agent whose contempt for others is exceeded only by his contempt for himself. Eddie has surrounded himself with three equally degenerate friends: his housemate and business partner, Mickey (Kevin Spacey), a mindless thug named Phil (Chazz Palminteri), and a sycophant writer, Artie (Gary Shandling). Women have no real place in this mens' world, except as sexual objects and punching bags. Three female characters drift through the movie: Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), the love of Eddie's life; Donna (Anna Paquin), a hitchhiker who trades sex for lodging; and Bonnie (Meg Ryan), a perpetually stoned stripper with an oral talent.

Hurlyburly is likely to be named by some viewers as an exercise in misogyny, but the characters display that trait, not the movie. These four men are among the least likable individuals to populate a movie screen this year, and Drazan makes no attempt to hide their shortcomings. Hardly a scene goes by when someone isn't snorting cocaine or spewing angry epithets. Eddie, Mickey, Phil, and Artie are misanthropes - hateful people who, by their own admission, are "self-absorbed and distracted." Eddie is in the midst of a search for himself, but everything and everyone around him is shallow and pointless. As one character notes, Eddie surrounds himself with losers so that no matter how far he falls, there will always be someone in his immediate circle who is lower.

The dialogue is consistently brilliant. Both the words and the cadence are reminiscent of David Mamet, and it's always fascinating to see where seemingly-normal conversations go as the characters follow trains of thought onto bizarre tangents. There's never a lack of things to say - these characters don't shut up. The question of whether to eat at a Chinese or French restaurant develops into a passionate fight over fidelity. A darkly humorous story about oral sex ends with a shocking revelation. And one particular exchange between Eddie and Mickey about the latter's relationship with Darlene extends over several face-to-face meetings and phone conversations, winding seamlessly from scene to scene. However, well-written dialogue is only fifty percent of why Hurlyburly works. The other major factor is the acting. This film is a showcase for several actors, and arguably contains the best ensemble participation of the year.

Sean Penn gives a towering, intense performance as Eddie, getting into the character's skin and inhabiting him completely. It's an amazing turn and a frighteningly believable portrayal of an opportunist on the edge. Penn brings layers to his desperation that many lesser actors cannot conceive of, much less craft on the screen. Penn's three male co-stars -- Chazz Palminteri as the talentless actor whose chief ability is to whack people (women in particular), Kevin Spacey as the amoral but amusing Mickey, who's never without a dry comeback, and Gary Shandling as the oily Artie - are capable of holding their own in scenes with him, which is a testament to the strength of their performances. On the female side, there are two successful examples of casting against type. Those who think of Meg Ryan as all sugar and spice will be surprised to see her in this role, where she radiates a slutty sexuality. And Anna Paquin (The Piano, Fly Away Home), perhaps following in Christina Ricci's footsteps, is effective as a vapid, oversexed girl who trades her body for a bed. Actually, it's almost a shame that Ryan and Paquin are so good - they make us want to see more of their characters.

Many viewers will have difficulty determining whether Hurlyburly is a black comedy or a tragedy. For, while the film contains its share of absurd and darkly comical moments, the overall portrait is a grim one. The characters are bottom-feeders - scum that prey off the weaknesses of others and revel in the bleakest aspects of the Hollywood culture. Hurlyburly would be easier to take if its portrayals weren't so dead-on. As with Your Friends and Neighbors, it's understandable if movie-goers leave the theater feeling unclean. 120 minutes with these people is enough to taint even the sunniest optimist.

My only complaint about the film is that it runs a little too long (although, at two hours, it's only two-thirds the length of the play). During the last half hour, as Eddie's search for meaning in life reaches its climax, the energy level drops off. With a little judicious pruning, Hurlyburly could have been even more powerful and disturbing than it is. Still, in a case like this, when every line is crafted (not just written), an unwillingness to cut is understandable. And, for the sheer pleasure of watching such virtuoso performances, it's worth the extra time.

Hurlyburly (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Drugs, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1