`Hurlyburly' a ghastly mess

Review: Vile film wastes Penns' vivid performances as it passes abuse on to viewers.

January 15, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Hurlyburly" is a mean, inconsequential trifle, a sort of malign parlor drama where cocaine and booze have taken the parts of tea and crumpets.

Based on David Rabe's play of the same name, it has a dated feel, as if it's discovering misogyny, ritualized aggression and the meaninglessness of popular culture for the first time.

Coming on the heels of a year with its share of abusive behavior on screen -- from the malevolently shallow "Your Friends and Neighbors" to the more acute but no less depressing "Happiness" -- "Hurlyburly" is about as much fun as holding a bag of screaming weasels.

And that's a shame, because Anthony Drazan's film features at least two outstanding performances, in the roles of said weasels. It's nearly always worth the trip to catch Sean Penn and Robin Wright Penn in action, and here they almost manage to transcend the ghastly material they've been given.

But not quite. "Hurlyburly" is an all-night binge of writerly pretension, vulgarity and sexism, which Rabe and Drazan have tarted up to look like self-examination. Don't be fooled. Stick with Mamet.

Penn plays a Hollywood casting agent named Eddie, a guy in full free-fall who hasn't slept in days while he watches his best friend, business partner and roommate Mickey (Kevin Spacey) court his ex-girlfriend (Wright Penn). Prowling around their Hollywood Hills condo, they snap and snarl at each other in that ineffable hormonal roux of hostility and affection. When Eddie's protege, a would-be actor named Phil (Chazz Palminteri), shows up, the fumes explode.

And fumes there are aplenty as Mickey, Eddie and Phil engage in escalating wars of verbal abuse and sexual posturing. As "Hurlyburly" grinds on in its one-upsmanship of cruelty, it begins to feel less like a cerebration on misogyny than a vicarious thrill on the part of good boys (Rabe and Drazan) who want desperately to be bad, bad, bad.

Presumably Penn and Spacey agreed to star in "Hurlyburly" so they could declaim such thought-provoking lines as, "This is just me trying to maintain a, you know, viable relationship with reality." And presumably Meg Ryan took the role of a bruised hooker to escape the "cute" thing and little Anna Paquin (who so eloquently thanked her agent when she won her Oscar for "The Piano") wanted to prove she was grown-up enough to play a homeless, leather-clad Lolita.

And maybe Wright Penn, whose character is the only human being in sight, just wanted to work with her husband.

That leaves Garry Shandling, who plays a vile Hollywood big shot (he finds Paquin's character and leaves her on Eddie and Mickey's doorstep as a "care package"), who doesn't exactly need this role to break out of a nice-guy persona. Probably he just wanted to work with Penn to maintain a, you know, viable relationship with credibility.

Unfortunately, that's just what's been lost in this stagy, strenuous and very sad production.

`Hurlyburly'

Starring: Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright Penn, Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling, Anna Paquin, Meg Ryan

Directed by Anthony Drazan

Released by Miramax Films

Rated R (constant drug use, pervasive strong language and sexual material)

Running time: 123 minutes

Sun score: *

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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