Director Anthony Drazan successfully brings the sexist, self-destructive camaraderie of 'Hurlyburly' to the screen.

Published December 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"Hurlyburly," adapted by director Anthony Drazan and writer David Rabe from Rabe's award-winning play, is less a tale than an X-ray of four self-destructive and misogynistic Hollywood wise guys. The film is a discomforting dose of fast-lane meltdown and macho angst, one that justifies comparisons to the best of David Mamet. Not since "Glengarry Glen Ross" has such a vibrantly and uncompromisingly talky play been so successfully translated to film. The result is a showcase for a remarkable ensemble of actors.

At the center of "Hurlyburly" is the friendship between two middle-echelon Hollywood operatives earning enough money to achieve a hellishly vacuous kind of personal freedom. Sean Penn plays Eddie, whose downward spiral through cocaine and various forms of betrayal is only an outward symptom of his ludicrously inarticulate ontological breakdown. "Everything distracts me from everything else," he muses, then works to refine the point: "But what I've really noticed is that mainly, the thing I'm most distracted by is myself. I mean, I'm my own major distraction." His partner and roommate is the stingingly cynical Mickey, brought to life with razor-sharp precision by Kevin Spacey. Mickey's cool, manipulative demeanor is a disastrous match for Eddie's existential passion. He's less Eddie's sounding board than his fun house mirror. Spacey's Mickey is the type who lectures on the difference between "sarcasm" and merely "being flip" before concluding, with a perfect note of weary self-admiration: "I can do both." When Penn nearly claws the carpet demanding to know "What kind of a friendship is this?" Spacey pauses cruelly before replying: "Adequate."

Rounding out the central quartet is Chazz Palminteri's Phil, an ex-con character actor who's on the inside track in the race to self-destruction, and Garry Shandling's Artie, a successful producer who tucks his insecurities behind a glibly superior front. What plot emerges out of the bitching and moaning of these brutes involves the unfortunate women who are passed between them like tokens -- and the fact that Phil's violent outbursts have begun to wear on the others. Both plot lines converge in a disastrous night of (relative) truth-telling that leaves the group shattered.

Drazan and Rabe solve the traditional problem of "opening out" the interior scenes of a play in exhilarating fashion: Penn and Spacey conduct their first long argument over cell phones in a chaotic montage of screeching highway car scenes and interrupted power meetings. The whole of Los Angeles has been reduced to a psychic landscape for the self-obsessed characters, in a sequence that's defiantly writerly and cinematic at once. Less successful is Drazan's mannered camera, which jiggles restlessly in a redundant underlining of the film's themes. Celebrated Chinese cinematographer Changwei Gu ("Farewell My Concubine") helped Drazan develop a special camera rig involving bungee cords, but the result is only reminiscent of a television cop show.

"Hurlyburly" is a sort of laboratory of actorly essences, where Penn, Spacey, Shandling and especially Palminteri are invited to explore the outer limits of their established personae. Take Penn, the most Method-ish of contemporary actors. His style embodies a willingness to strive emotionally for the inexpressible in human life -- an approach that brings to mind the films of the late, great actor-director John Cassavetes. The role of Eddie demands his deepest plunge yet into tongue-tied anguish, with triumphant results. Similarly, Spacey is invited to plumb the meaning of his remote, manipulative charm -- to demonstrate with sinister relish the precise degrees between flip and sarcastic. He's superb, as is the wincing, cringing Shandling, who plays a subvariant of the same sort of scoundrel.

But the revelation is Palminteri. The suppressed rage suggested by this actor's physiognomy and verbal style has never been well exploited. In fact, Palminteri gets palmed off as a cartoon of danger, a lug with a heart of gold, in films passable ("Bullets Over Broadway," "A Bronx Tale") and rotten ("Mulholland Falls"). Phil represents a desublimation of Palminteri's previous roles, a chance for the actor to make us understand how much he really knows about the yearning heart of a dangerously stupid and violent man. Think of Bogart in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," where the actor's former control peels away to show paranoia roiling underneath. In what is perhaps the saddest and funniest moment of the film, Palminteri listens hard while Shandling and Spacey discuss the concept of "karma." As he considers his past sins, a look crosses his face that suggests that he alone grasps the damnation these men share, though he can only voice his fears by asking: "Do you have any particular hard data on this karma thing?"

There's one important reservation to raise about "Hurlyburly," one that touches on this film and much else, from the plays of Mamet to the films of Neil LaBute ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors"), even to fiction by writers like Richard Ford and Leonard Michaels. The question is: How many blistering insights into the precise texture of misogyny do we really need? And when does indictment creep into fetishization, into a kind of blissful wallowing in adorable jerkdom? By making sexist monsters the locus of so very much charisma and identification, "Hurlyburly" extends an implicit argument: This is what men are really like; progress is impossible. Men, see here your secret self, and women be warned.

"Hurlyburly" serves to focus this question because it has a guilty conscience. Drazan fills the soundtrack with a chorus of ethereal women's voices, as if to say: Here is the female principle missing in these lives, here is the absent grace (never mind that a vision of women as providers of disembodied grace is part of the problem). The degraded and sexualized tokens of desire played by Robin Wright Penn, Meg Ryan and Anna Paquin are given moments of subjectivity and respect by Drazan's camera and Rabe's script. These moments are meant to be crucial, defining, damning -- Paquin is even given the film's last word. Alas, it isn't that these passing gestures of evenhandedness aren't sincere, it's that they don't work. The four men are the subjective center of the film, and they're real to one another in a way that the women never are and never could be. These bozos ratify one another's tormented existence, and the film is helpless to break free. It loves them, and loves their pain, too dearly.

"Hurlyburly" earns its keep, in the end, with writerly flash and dramatic virtuosity. But should we now seek a moratorium on fond dissections of sexist camaraderie? I don't know. I'm only certain that a film starring four of Hollywood's best actresses as irresistibly magnetic man-haters could never be made by a major studio. If it could it wouldn't need making, would it?

By Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem, the Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College, is the author of, most recently, and the story collection "Lucky Alan" and the novel "Dissident Gardens."

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