Hurlyburly
Director: Anthony Drazan. Cast: Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright Penn, Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling, Meg Ryan, Anna Paquin. Screenplay: David Rabe (based on his play).

Hurlyburly, like the equally scabrous Happiness, is a laudable if not ground-breaking achievement in cinema that relies utterly for effect on your own willingness to endure its miserable, misogynstic, and emotionally miserly characters. There's not a hero to be found among these low-lifes, high-livers, and social drop-outs. Not only does everyone sport long tracks of visible psychic bruises, but more often than not the abuse takes place before our eyes, with both victim and inflictor sharing the screen. All of this barbarism, mostly but not always of the emotional sort, makes Hurlyburly a brutal, distasteful, and sometimes claustrophobic picture, but most of its sterling cast works at such a level in at least a few of their scenes that to ignore the film altogether does seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater—a literal action which at least a couple of these characters might well perpetrate if given the time.

The central figures in Hurlyburly are Eddie and Mickey, two casting agents in 1980s Hollywood, played respectively by Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey. Watching their relationship is akin to indulging in one of those lurid Fox TV specials like "When Animals Attack!" Nothing cements this friendship so much as each man's awareness that only the other is willing to tolerate him. Eddie is a drug-addicted, irresponsible, uncomely ferret of a person who is often no more than vaguely confident that he is, in fact, awake. Mickey, both his roommate and his business partner, is disgusted by Eddie's slovenliness, but living with him affords Mickey plenty of space to refine the skills of criticism and ice-cold upbraiding that are his specialty. Part of what this means is that Mickey himself is spiritually empty, vivid to the senses only as a sort of negative specter, an embodiment of sarcasm where a real human being used to be.

Usually, Eddie doesn't mind his associate's picking and poking, but he does mind when Mickey puts the moves on Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), a dippy blonde with whom Eddie has had an on-off relationship but who clearly still compels his affection (to whatever extent affection still exists in him). Mickey's dalliance with Darlene strikes Eddie mostly as an affront on Mickey's part to their mano-a-mano agreement that Darlene is Eddie's sexual territory; her own involvement in the affair aggravates Eddie when she seems to take distinct pleasure in flaunting her infidelity, but he does not charge her with the same degree of duplicity of which he thinks Mickey to be guilty. This double-standard is informed by Eddie's perception that women are inherently unstable systems whose very nature dictates that they will constantly upset you and inevitably mistreat you, but which nonetheless are a necessary evil. He's the sort of guy who could cite "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" as if it were religious mantra, or a Confucian insight.

Hurlyburly itself has been accused of misogyny because so many of its characters exhibit that attitude. Not only do Chazz Palminteri as a recklessly thuggish actor and Garry Shandling as a smarmy, soulless exec treat women as tradeable commodities—plus in Palminteri's case, he beats his wife on a fairly regular basis—but the female cast of Hurlyburly, after Wright Penn's dim-bulb flirt, comprises Meg Ryan as a call-girl of famously sound fellating technique and The Piano's Anna Paquin as a street nymph who knows she stands a better shot at finding a bed each night if she'll share it with whatever man is offering.

I don't think Hurlyburly or David Rabe—the Tony-winning playwright who adapted the script himself—can themselves be called "woman-hating," since those despicable attitudes are clearly tagged to the characters' mentalities and not an over-arching claim of the material. Certainly nothing in Rabe's writing sanctions this idea, though there is something to be said, I think, for the argument that questions whether a movie full of misogynists, even if not itself guilty of misogyny, is something with which our society really needs to be confronted. It is of the essence that Hurlyburly be regarded by audiences mature enough to perceive its characters' sensibilities as grotesquely retrograde and their cruelties as unforgivable. If nothing else, Rabe's script (whose chief flaw is that it does not sufficiently reimagine the material from its stagebound origins) makes it impossible to identify with or endorse Palminteri's Phil or Shandling's Artie, and confirms their status as hateful human beings.

These issues aside—and I raise them mostly because so much criticism of Hurlyburly has appropriated them as the major line of attack—this picture's real problem is that its pointed indictment of unforgivable attitudes does not really lead anywhere. Rabe's roundelay of hangers-on keeps following the same circle for a two-hour duration that becomes a little hard to take, especially since certain critical moments (the death of one character, the eleventh-hour return of another long-vanished one) do not pack the wallop that Rabe apparently intends. Palminteri, Shandling, and Paquin are all unevenly effective, harrowing in some moments but in others merely clutter in a principal setting (Mickey and Eddie's apartment) that cannot shake off the obvious feeling of "this is where the play was set." Director Anthony Drazan and brilliant photographer Changwei Gu (Farewell My Concubine, The Gingerbread Man) make efforts to bring the action outdoors, but again the results are uneven. Penn and Palminteri's trip to the grocery store smacks of histrionics with no concrete relation to their environment; the sight of Penn walking barefoot back to his car, though, is a priceless index of these men's cluelessness of how to behave in the world, and of their proud conviction that no worldly element could ever puncture their thick, substance-enhanced, seedy-looking skin.

Speaking of puncturing, however, Hurlyburly does contain two performances that are more successful than the rest in making an impression at almost every moment. One of these is from Meg Ryan, whom I may one day tire of championing as possibly our most underrated actress, but who so consistently impresses with her technique that I shall not give up the fight. No doubt several people will understand her participation in Hurlyburly as an obvious gesture of widening her forte from the romantic-comedy genre, but Ryan's performances are almost always little symphonies in which a character who pretends to be invulnerable gradually admits to her weaknesses. Hurlyburly's Bonnie is in this respect no different.

Called to her pal Eddie's pad as a potential date for a disconsolate Phil, Bonnie struts into the room with a surprising confidence given how viperish she must realize these acquaintances to be. Only after Phil throws her out of her car—it's moving at the time, as she attempts to make clear later on to the other men—does she take the stand of rebuking these monsters for their casual indifference to the consequences of their actions. People who think Ryan's dimples or her grin are her supreme ammunition as an actress are missing her real trump card: a mellifluous, marvelously expressive voice that alternates between a Queen of Hearts and an Ace of Spades. Her Bonnie is a confident, strong, but inadequately self-protecting creation that joins the ranks of Ryan's best work.

The other marvel in Hurlyburly is Sean Penn, who has so impressed me with his recent series of appearances in Dead Man Walking, She's So Lovely, and other films that I do not even remember his 80's incarnation as camera-punching, Madonna-divorcing bad boy. He is an actor of the highest caliber, and his Eddie is drawn in such bold, forked-tongue strokes that we can't believe how poignant he makes his longing for affection, or how childishly pitiful his requests for Bonnie to give him a quick sort of free ride. Penn covers such a broad range of feeling in his work, and often with such startling fleetness: observe one scene where his frustration with Darlene's amiability becomes outright scorn, or the speed with which he later retreats from a mourner's grief to a reality-denying, pedantic deconstruction of the language of his friend's suicide note. We almost resent how much he makes us care about Eddie, how gripped we are by this loser. As if in compensation for our somewhat grudging investment, Penn does one last, seemingly effortless leap to make Eddie genuinely sorry for his immorality, possibly even aware that he could (if he wanted) change his sick cycles of behavior.

If the protagonists of In the Company of Men ever went to a multiplex, Hurlyburly would be their perfect ticket. This does not at all mean that you have to be a cruel woman-baiter to enjoy or understand this movie, and in fact their identification with the characters' mentalities would be quite contrary to the clear if unpunishing criticism that Rabe and Drazan put forth about these attitudes. There is no question that Hurlyburly comprises something of an endurance test, and for almost every moment of showstopping acuity (like an uproariously vapid pillow talk between the Penns), there is often a needlessly ornate, mush-minded speech (Kevin Spacey is startlingly stiff reading Rabe's dialogue) or a disquieting moment such as that in which 16-year-old Anna Paquin shares her first bedroom scene, though not anatomically explicit, with someone as comparatively old as Sean Penn. Yikes, brothers and sisters.

Hurlyburly, clearly, is one jagged little pill, though the verdict is still out as to exactly what ailment it is meant to cure—perhaps the pill is rather of the narcotic sort favored by the characters themselves. Whatever one takes away from Hurlyburly, it is hard to ignore that the self-assurance of the photography and the flicker of genius in much of the acting makes the film eye-catchingly credible, at least for the most part. The devil of the thing is that Hurlyburly should be, given its characters and its content, a lot more off-putting than it already is. I'm not sure if misogyny, or any other reprehensible attitude, actually becomes more clear or comprehensible the longer it is observed, but the superb technicians involved in Hurlyburly make such an argument feel true even if it doesn't hold actual water. If only the men and women in this picture worked as hard as the actors do to make themselves articulate and understood, then we might really get somewhere. B


Awards:
Venice Film Festival: Best Actor (Penn)

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