An insider’s take on the cutthroat world of television writers, “Hacks” is a flip, intermittently amusing satire. Though enhanced by a marquee cast, the picture has little to offer in the way of insight or reflection and therefore won’t translate outside of a small, insider crowd. Its best prospects are in cable, where the familiar ensemble will offset the lack of a compelling story and the uneven direction.
Focus is on Brian (Stephen Rea), a seasoned writer-producer who’s been suffering from depression and creative burnout. His agent (Tom Arnold) has just landed him an assignment to script a 22-episode anthology, and the wordsmith is filled with dread over the need to fill blank pages.
That evening, at a weekly poker game at his house, Brian breaks away for a moment to stash a delivery of prescription pills, and, from his room, he witnesses a strange romantic encounter between two silhouetted figures on the balcony of a nearby hotel. He recounts the details to his gambling buddies, mostly fellow writers, and soon a half-dozen scenarios are drawn from the sketchy account.
The game dissolves into a story meeting, and four of the group move across the street to a bar with Brian. There, he spots a woman (Illeana Douglas) he believes is one of the lovers he’d spotted an hour earlier. He approaches and offers to buy “her story.” He’s willing to give anything — short of credit — for a ripping yarn.
When Brian disappears with his subject, his friends initially appear concerned for his health, but later their disquiet centers on the scripts that conceivably never will be written. They break into Brian’s pad and a series of misadventures follows.
Aside from “Hacks’ ” relentlessly insular perspective, the picture fails to connect because it shows no interest in creating sympathy for a single character. Brian, a presumably esteemed figure, is a whining, self-destructive type concerned less with story structure than retaining his industry profile and meeting whopping mortgage payments for a show house in the Hollywood Hills. His cronies are duplicitous, self-absorbed, treacherous types who evince no more than a scintilla of talent.
Sorely missing is any evidence that the characters have a facility for writing and that any of them holds other than a Darwinian view of human nature. There’s no indication that a single soul here had dreams dashed by the system and suffers the consequences of the grind and politics of hackdom.
Writer-director Gary Rosen has an ease with a clever line and a quick quip. Some of pic is indeed very funny, but the overall effect is neither insightful nor emotionally involving. Helmer crowds his performers into scenes; generally the most aggressive player dominates, to the detriment of the piece. Both Rea and Douglas are ill served by such a dynamic, while a few of the supporting players, including the ever-reliable John Ritter and newcomer Dusty Kay, emerge with a semblance of dignity.
Though polished, tech credits are no more than acceptable for TV broadcast. “Hacks” may decry this cynical segment of the entertainment biz, but it typifies the very thing it tries so desperately to lampoon.