Two long hours with three self-absorbed misogynists and the articulate women who allow these guys to treat them like dirt is not most people’s idea of a good time, and “Hurlyburly” is unlikely to change their minds. David Rabe’s rather dated 1984 play about denizens of heartless Hollywood trying to fathom their relationships with their women and their world may have worked in a stylized stage setting. But up close on the screen, it is a punishing talkfest that functions purely as a performance piece, primarily for Sean Penn. Fine Line faces an uphill task in finding more than a niche audience for this dark, cynical and stage-bound film.
The trio of morally bankrupt male characters share a house in the Hollywood Hills and all work in the movie business. Eddie (Penn) and Mickey (Kevin Spacey) are casting agents, and Phil (Chazz Palminteri) is an out-of-work actor. Eddie is almost permanently wired on coke and grass. For possibly selfish reasons, he appears to show concern for Phil, who has been kicked out by his wife, and whose life is falling apart, making him increasingly violent and edgy. Slick, unfazable Mickey dryly disapproves of Eddie’s habits and Phil’s desperate behavior but is too reptilian to really care about either of them.
The women are only marginally less irredeemable, but the raw deal they get from the men makes them a little more sympathetic. Eddie is seeing Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), despite her making a brief detour via Mickey’s bed. Nonetheless, he freely samples the pleasures of Donna (Anna Paquin), a young Hollywood drifter presented as a “CARE package” to the sexually needy guys by their producer friend Artie (Garry Shandling). Called on to provide sexual solace for Phil, up-for-anything, drug-hungry exotic dancer Bonnie (Meg Ryan) gets tossed out of a moving car during a date, but still comes back for more.
Rabe’s often razor-sharp dialogue makes much of the early going enjoyable. But the characters are cutouts that exist only as vehicles for the playwright’s incessant, baroque wordplay, and as they settle into an uninterrupted round of obsessive self-dissection, the script — adapted by Rabe — begins to lose its bite.
While it’s refreshing to see flagrant political incorrectness in the sanitized late ’90s, there’s too little sense of all the vicious talk actually building to anything. Even when Phil’s situation pushes him to take drastic steps, it leads not to any major revelations but to more talking in circles, just on a more manic level. The emotional dead end at which Eddie finds himself, suggesting a turning point of sorts, is scant reward for all the downbeat conversational bludgeoning that’s come before.
Anthony Drazan’s journeyman direction also doesn’t help. Despite a loose, jazzy feel to the editing and camerawork that meshes well with the rhythm of the dialogue, the most imaginative ploy used to open up the material is shifting the conversations outdoors and into moving cars.
It’s not difficult to see what attracted such a stellar ensemble cast to the project, and ultimately, it seems more than anything to be about actors stretching their limbs. Spacey contributes perhaps the most subtle work as an unscrupulous operator, comfortable with his total lack of loyalties; Ryan plays effectively against type as the good-time girl clinging to a shred of self-respect; Wright Penn’s Darlene has a sexy amorality; Shandling puts plenty of snap and humor in his dialogue; and Paquin brings spark and intelligence to her first adult part. In brutal loser Phil, Palminteri is stuck with a thankless role that shuts out pathos.
The point around which the piece revolves is Eddie, and Penn’s impressive performance dominates the film. His perf is much more physical than that of any of his co-stars, a volatile turn full of wild mood swings from hard arrogance to self-loathing and maudlin self-pity, and he is perhaps alone in giving the impression his character may be more a victim than an agent of his icy emotional state.