movie review by
Gary Johnson



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"This is just me trying to maintain a, you know, viable relationship with reality."
--Eddie (Sean Penn) in Hurlyburly

Throughout his career, Sean Penn has been attracted to characters who get hung up in the pursuit of sensation. In one of his first roles, he played the dope-headed student in Fast Times at Ridgemont High who orders a pizza to be delivered while a high school class is still in progress. In Falcon and the Snowman, he played a drug dealer who indulges freely in his own goods while also selling government secrets to the Russians. In Casualties of War, he played a solider who, during the pressures of battle, succumbs to the basest of desires and rapes and murders a woman. Penn certainly isn't interested in playing heroes.

In his newest movie, Hurlyburly, Penn once again plays a character consumed by his pursuit of sensation. He wakes up by snorting cocaine. "Some people have breakfast," says his roommate Mickey (Kevin Spacey). However, this character was created with a difference: Eddie (Penn) wants and needs to be loved by his girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn), but he's such a self-indulgent mess that she begins to drift in other directions. Even Mickey dates her after first asking for Eddie's permission: "Everybody is free," says Eddie. But in the movie's first scene, we see Eddie agonizing over that date when he phones Darlene (Wright) and no one answers.

Later, Mickey says to Eddie about his night with Darlene, "It's not worth our friendship. You know that." However, while Mickey is cool, remote, and rarely (if ever) touched by anything, Eddie is filled with doubts. While Mickey is cynical and beyond caring, Eddie struggles with his own mortality and his relationships with other people.

Eddie and Mickey live in the Hollywood hills in a hideaway of cold metallic surfaces. During the days (while they work as casting agents), they feed off of the fast-paced Hollywood environment of freeways and cellular telephones and acquire a compulsive, hyperactive energy. They think they're a lot more witty than they really are. Eddie, Mickey, and the bunch of characters that revolve around Eddie and Mickey's apartment are a pathetic group. They spit out reams of dialog without really saying much. Most of their feelings are hidden in things they don't say. For example, when Eddie tries to describe how Darlene makes him feel, he says, "My feelings are hurt, blah, blah, blah . . . ." Eddie wants to be cool and remote like Mickey, but he has these feelings that keep getting in the way. He wants to discount them, but he can't completely.

Whereas the stage version of Hurlyburly revolved around Mickey, director Anthony Drazan and screenwriter David Rabe have moved the focus to Eddie for the screen version. This change allows for a slight glimmer of hope to burn at the movie's core--will Eddie find redemption?

Drazan and Rabe (adapting his own play) have ensured that the transition from stage to screen is fairly transparent. The characters are still preoccupied with words (and thus the movie is a true showcase for the actors), but the filmmakers have given the story a visceral urgency that reaches beyond the confines of a stage. Particularly impressive is a scene that shows Eddie and Mickey talking on their cellular phones as they drive home in separate cars, zipping through traffic while talking about the importance of their friendship. Drazan and Rabe have completely rethought the play and fashioned a fresh approach to the characters. And production designer Michael Haller (who died soon after the movie was completed) and cinematographer Changwei Gu (who also photographed Farewell, My Concubine) have created a super-slick environment of reflective surfaces--glass, mirrors, metal, and water--that makes Eddie and Mickey's apartment cold and sterile.

Around Eddie and Mickey swirl several supporting characters. Garry Shandling plays a producer named Artie who feels that he doesn't quite fit in. To show that he belongs, he drops by with a "care package": a teenage girl, played by Anna Paquin (of The Piano), who nonchalantly trades sex for a place to sleep. "You want her, huh?" he says. "She'll become like this pet." Chazz Palmenteri is a desperate, out-of-work actor named Phil who talks about the "dark thoughts" within everyone: "I have thoughts sometimes that could break my head open," he says. He hates himself for succumbing to Paquin: "I'm thinkin' about football and you gotta be here with your tits and ass and this tight shrunken clothes and these shriveled jeans. . . . Football doesn't have a chance against it." Meg Ryan plays an exotic dancer who yearns for a career as an actress and will do practically anything, no matter how pathetic, to ingratiate herself with industry insiders. But even she starts to wonder about Eddie: "You know, if your manner of speech is in any way a reflection of what goes on inside your head, you're lucky you can tie your shoes," she says. And Robin Wright Penn plays Eddie's girlfriend, who like Mickey and Eddie, refuses to commit. She has no problem sleeping with two guys at the same time. She drifts through life without anything or anyone to hold her to one place for long.

At times the movie acquires some of the same urgency as Leaving Las Vegas--especially as Eddie's self-destructive spiral starts to tighten--and if you liked Leaving Las Vegas, you'll probably like Hurlyburly. As Leaving Las Vegas was a great vehicle for Nicolas Cage to strut his stuff as an actor, Hurlyburly is a great venue for Sean Penn. This is one of Penn's best performance, the equal of his Academy Award nominated performance in Carlito's Way.

However, your reaction to Hurlyburly will largely rest upon how much patience you have with the self-indulgent, self-absorbed characters that populate this movie. The filmmakers would like for us to be seduced by the frenzied energy given off as these characters move in a wild spiral. However, I quickly found myself not caring what happened to any of them. None of the characters are as witty or as interesting as the filmmakers would like for us to believe.

Unlike, for example, Oliver Stone's The Doors or Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt, Eddie doesn't really have much to lose. He's already just a niche away from the gutter. That's why he keeps Phil around: "No matter how far you manage to fall, Phil will always be lower," says Mickey. But that's also why screenwriter David Rabe created Phil--so in comparison Eddie would look worthy of redemption.

At its core, this is a movie about Eddie learning to care, about Eddie learning to take responsibility for his own life. But after spending two hours watching Eddie smother his feelings by snorting cocaine and swilling alcohol, I couldn't give a rat's ass whether he ever learns to care.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]