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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Hurlyburly

Starring: Sean Penn, Robin Wright
Director: Anthony Drazan
Rated: R
RunTime: 122 Minutes
Release Date: December 1998
Genre: Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Reviewing a recent Hollywood blockbuster, New Republic critic Stanley Kauffmann advised that "we all have a bomb ticking inside us." This is not a surprising revelation. Think of all the books, plays and movies that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. David Rabe is one writer who has made a career from this wisdom. The Iowa-born playwright believes that this interior bomb is the ultimate truth; that wars are merely the external expression of a rage that demands release. His best work, "Streamers," is a sharply written, highly focussed and firmly paced tale of three soldiers in a Virginia army barracks--an intellectual, a gay man, and a black--whose life in the quarters takes a dramatic turn when one of them goes ballistic. "Hurlyburly," Rabe's 1984 play which enjoyed an opening in New York's Promenade Theater in 1984 with a dynamite cast, is not as fortuitious an achievement. By contrast with "Streamers," "Hurlyburly" is flowery and overwritten, an end-of-the-world play about Hollywood sharks whose internal rage seeks release in their attitudes and conduct toward women. Though director Anthony Drazen tries mightily to open it up in its current screen version, its celluloid remake is a mistake; a stagy, unfocused set of monologues which happen to be spoken to others in the room. Fueled by cocaine, the men in the story and the largely masochistic women who associate with them run through their experience in a drug-induced haze. The audience can't be blamed for feeling that they are themselves enveloped by smog, by a surfeit of prose which never lifts off to become lyrical.

Perhaps the truest words articulated in the movie are by the youngest member of the group, Donna (Anna Paquin), who sums up the theme toward the conclusion of the two- hour drama by exclaiming, "It's great when people know what each other is talking about." The ever-present chatter--the "blah blah blah" as one of the characters periodically calls it-- is not especially revealing, though the writer may be making the barb that the conversation of men in general runs in much the same way. During the initial half, the men vent their spleen about women--bitches, whores, ghouls--while during the final half, they are petulant, vulnerable, and seek redemption at the hands of the very gender they have so regularly belittled.

The principal character, Eddie (Sean Penn), is a casting director who is ensconced in a Hollywood Hills villa with a dramatic, hillside view. He is joined by cronies, namely a tough-guy actor with a prison record, Phil (Chazz Palmintieri); a sceenwriter who is chasing deals, Artie (Gary Shandling); and a smooth-talking business partner, Mickey (Kevin Spacey), who is taking a break from his wife and kids. Shortly thereafter the company is to include a teen-age drifter, Donna (Anna Paquin), whom Artie has found living in an elevator; Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), who has been dating both Eddie and Mickey; and a sweet stripper, Bonnie (Meg Ryan) whose night out with Phil sets off a disastrous chain of events.

To punctuate the notion that these human beings are leading lives of lives, deception, superficiality and meaningless sensation-seeking, director Drazan cuts frequently to news items on TV, which flashes a barrage of seemingly unconnected stories--the newscasters taking little time to penetrate the surface to catch the truth behind the reports. The male buddies in "Hurlyburly" lead lives of similar prevarication, dismissing their depravities as merely aspects of their personalities. Drazan does a decent job of capturing the anesthetized lives of these men, on several occasions highlighting the diatribes of the psychotic Phil who, like one person in David Rabe's "Streamers" is about to explode. When that occurs, the men break down in remorse and gain new insights into their hurlyburly existence, intuitions that allow them to make changes that could turn their lives around.

While this is Sean Penn's movie, allowing that actor to run the gamut form self-satisfied, hollow casting director nose deep in the cocaine culture to go below the surface (literally) and save his soul, the performance to watch is Kevin Spacey's. This actor, remarkable in every role he is cast, gives a fully realized performance as a self-protective cynic. We don't wonder why he hangs out with the fellows he does: though he is the least mannered of the group, he gains his own macho accreditation by standing above the fray, settled in judgment over his less stable peers. Fitted with an outrageously cool white rug, Spacey's Mickey is the movie's fully ripened, comic performance. Meg Ryan is reliable as the too-trusting stripper, eager to hook up with any decent- looking man thrust upon her, while Chazz Palminteri plays to type as a hoodlum whose wife--seen only once in the story-- must be the only smart one in town for having divorced him and left his circle.

While this movie version has an all-star cast, none except Spacey is up to the dynamic group that appeared fourteen years ago at a little-known off-Broadway theater; stars like Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Jerry Stiller, Cynthia Nixon, Judith Ivey, William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver. With a marquee like that and a director like Mike Nichols, "Hurlyburly" was the year's play to catch. As a film, however, it comes across as static--though not nearly as inert as last year's "The Designated Mourner" which ironically featured Mike Nichols in the starring role. Long on theatrics that belong on the live stage, this filmed version appears sluggish, a buddy movie spotlighting a good-ol'-boys network whose wires are desperately crossed.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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