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"Hurlyburly" makes it to the screen

By Carolyn Clay

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  "When the hurlyburly's done,/When the battle's lost and won," cackle the witches of Macbeth, planning to -- in LA parlance -- take a meeting. But the turmoil in David Rabe's 1984 play, which has at last been turned into a film, by Anthony Drazan, is decidedly un-Shakespearean. The characters in this dark comedy of manners are four crass Hollywood middle-rungers and a trio of women who pass into their lonely, logorrheic orbit. At the center of the maelstrom is Sean Penn's Eddie, a coked-up casting director whose misogyny is less an act of hostility than a cri du coeur.

Eddie and his cooler colleague, the silkily cynical Mickey (Kevin Spacey), share a rented house in the Hollywood hills; both are divorced, though Mickey makes it clear he's just on an indeterminate "break" from his wife and kids. Their chums include industry player Artie (Garry Shandling), who shows up one day with a "care package" in the form of nubile runaway Donna (Anna Paquin), and Phil (Chazz Palminteri), a pathologically paranoid actor wanna-be with a nearly KO'd marriage and "violent karma." Robin Wright Penn is the beauteous if brittle Darlene, who sleeps with Mickey before segueing into a more serious if open-ended relationship with Eddie. And Meg Ryan is Bonnie, a sweet, feisty balloon dancer whose fellatious exploits past and present are the stuff of some deeply unsettling comedy.

When Mike Nichols's production of Hurlyburly arrived on Broadway in '84, much of the buzz was about its movie-star cast, which included William Hurt, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, and Sigourney Weaver. The movie, less surprisingly, also boasts a movie-star cast. But the allure of the material for this younger generation of Hollywood gentry, one suspects, was the same -- an opportunity to chew the LA scenery in roles that may not be sympathetic but are nonetheless the thespian equivalent of the potent white powder that floats through Hurlyburly like snow through a paperweight.

It is arguable that this particular drug-and-sex-fueled scene, in Hollywood as elsewhere, was more prevalent in the early '80s than it is today. Director Drazan (best known for Zebrahead) maintains it was just more public then. In any case, he has chosen not to treat Hurlyburly as a period piece, using contemporary music and such '90s technology as the cellular phone to allow Penn's Eddie to trap folks in his obsessive-compulsive sway even as they escape him to go about their half-baked business in sun-baked LA. Drazan also bathes the work in irony, even as Chinese cinematographer Changwei Gu (Farewell, My Concubine) bathes it in golden light, bringing to the chiseled Wright Penn, in particular, a gorgeous glow.

Believe me, she needs it to keep afloat in the tank with Rabe's male sharks, predatory little boys lost who try to keep their heads above the vitriol as they follow their ambitions by day and their dicks by night. There's additional irony in the thought that whereas in 1984 Rabe was attacked for the misogyny of his characters, today Hurlyburly's guys seem like pussycats next to In the Company of Men. Indeed, it is Eddie's anguished struggle to dig beneath his own contemptible surface in search of a soul that supplies what Hurlyburly has of a plot. And the mustachio'd Penn, bounding between wired and stupefied, gives an anguished, unstinting account of what Drazan calls "a perverse hero's journey."

I had more trouble with Palminteri, whose Phil the film makes such a loose, crazed cannon that it's hard to believe even the self-loathing Eddie would befriend him. The hair-trigger Palminteri can be both funny and frightening as he struggles to decode every non sequitur in search of meaning and possible belittlement. And the scene in which he turns up with his infant daughter (warily dubbed "a broad of the future") is harrowing; you half expect him to crack the kiddie as he might a knuckle. But with Phil over rather than on the edge, his efficacy as the roiling-id figure that keeps Eddie from turning to dapper stone like Mickey is diminished.

Drazan and cinematographer Gu do a lot to counter the talkarama aspect of Hurlyburly (which has, to its benefit, been seriously pared down from the stage incarnation). As the Walpurgisnacht action spills around and out of the shinily generic Hollywood digs of Eddie and Mickey, the camera bounces off reflective surfaces and peers through transparent ones -- notably in an Artie-Mickey confrontation filmed through a glass coffee table under which Eddie floats as if under a sea specked with cocaine. But the jangly camerawork can distract from and even disorient the performances. It certainly disorients the audience, which doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when a wrecked Eddie, having bared his addled soul to Bonnie, staggeringly commands her to "suck my dick."

"I think I'm going to need a magnifying glass to find what's left of your good points," comments Ryan's bruised but resilient survivor at this juncture. The same could be said of most of Hurlyburly's sexily-turned-out sad-sack characters. It's a credit to the actors that we care a damn about them -- though the terrific Kevin Spacey makes a case for droll, dispassionate Mickey as the most monstrous. You won't catch this guy projecting his demons like poor old Macbeth.

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