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Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 26 February 1999

  Directed by Anthony Drazan.

Starring Sean Penn, Chazz Palmintieri,
Kevin Spacey, Garry Shandling, Anna Paquin,
Robin Wright Penn and Meg Ryan.

Screenplay by David Rabe,
from his stage play

The men in David Rabe's Hurlyburly -- Eddie (Sean Penn), Mickey (Kevin Spacey), Phil (Chazz Palmintieri), and Artie (Garry Shandling) -- are quite a crew. They take drugs, they fret about women, they fret about their relationships, they fret about how they're supposed to think and feel and react about certain things, they fret about what they think about each other, and they especially fret about whether something they say or do is being understood in the way it was meant to be. Rabe gives the characters wild, tangential riffs of dialogue, some of which is quite funny, in which the men try to explain points precisely in lengthy, circumlocative ways, to which the person being spoken to responds with an equally circumlocative reaction. It's like the proverbial bowl of peanuts: once they start, they can't stop.

Rabe's 1984 stage play, set in the hills above present-day Hollywood, has, belatedly, finally made its way to the screen, but director Anthony Drazan, working from a screenplay by Rabe, has made a rather shrill, clamorous, messy affair of it, with streaks of filmic verve and acumen running through it, but with an ill-modulated tone, and characters and relationships that are ill-defined. These guys have troubles, but it's difficult to ascertain why. Little of the original material's meaning -- about the dislocation and anger men feel by, in Rabe's words, "having been flung out from the haven of their sexual and marital contexts and preconceptions", and how "out of apparent accidents is hewn destiny" -- comes through.

Some of the ensemble cast's performers get shuffled in the milieu and leave little impression, including Kevin Spacey, who has a grandly ridiculous bleach rinse hair job, and Meg Ryan, who appears as a sort of Nineties version of a "goodtime girl." But some of the other performers do some good work. Sean Penn makes Eddie a rummy-eyed shambler who expresses his desperation in ways that sometimes truly take one aback, but yet are utterly pitiable. Chazz Palmitieri gives his character rising outbursts of machismo anger that continually trip him up, to hilarious, or terrifying, effect. And Anna Paquin makes a dynamite appearance as an underage runaway, whom the other characters initially treat in a "Look at This" manner creepily reminiscent of some of the more skin-crawling passages of Bret Easton Ellis novels, but who turns out to be the most clear-eyed, level-headed, and untainted one in the bunch.

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