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[whitespace] Hurlyburly
Phil Bray

Hard-Crusted: Sean Penn's Eddie finally reveals a sensitive inner core in 'Hurlyburly.'

Mundane decadence, much bellowing in 'Hurlyburly'

By Richard von Busack

IN SAUL BELLOW'S novel Humboldt's Gift, a character mulls over the moral dilemmas of the average movie audience: "As the wicked flee where none pursueth, the middle class wrestles where none contendeth." Hurlyburly, the screen version of David Rabe's play, is full of that self-same dilemma. Should the noisy, trashy characters stop partying down and treating women like whores? If they do, won't they risk baring their deep-buried sensitive selves? Hurlyburly is meant to jolt us out of our seats with the sight of Hollywood types at their worst, with the spectacle of Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey in a hard-fought actors' duel to see who is the most cold-hearted. It's such old news now: the blowhardly consumption of coke and weed, the half-formed metaphysical arguments spurred by too much drugs, the sweaty guilt that overcomes Penn's character, frosting him with sweat as if he'd had malaria. (It's actually swimming-pool water, not sweat, but it's enough like sweat for my taste.)

Like some forms of jazz, these are the kind of roles that are more fun to play than they are to sit through. Eddie (Penn), a casting director, and his coke-buddy Mickey (Spacey, wearing a blond toupee) are high up in the Hollywood Hills, bantering about the possession of a girl they both enjoy, Darlene (Robin Wright Penn). It's a veritable "after you, Alphonse," routine; both men are so anxious to be nice guys that neither can make the move. (They're verbal characters, always politely examining their own motives while doing each other wrong.)

The genteel competition is sidetracked by the appearance of some newcomers. Phil (Chazz Palminteri) is a friend of Eddie's, an ex-con who works as a technical advisor on gangster movies. Donna (Anna Paquin of The Piano, all grown up and too good for this movie) is a wise-beyond-her-years runaway who is in the concubine business The scenes are carried out over the course of more than a year. In one episode, Phil, who is in an agitated state because his woman has left him, mistreats a hooker (Meg Ryan). Our sympathies are meant to be with the poor, tortured thug. (Ryan's acting here is Oscar caliber. In other words, it's loud and subtle as a bullhorn, with lots of gesticulation and deliberately untidy hair.)

Director Anthony Drazen (Zebrahead) creates some arresting visuals, including the head of a colossal Marlboro man billboard that divides a pair of lovers on a balcony, and the vivid, broad traffic signs on a cliff-side curve. During one shouting match, I was distracted by the helixes of light projected on the wall behind the actors from the reflections off the surface of an indoor swimming pool--I was glad for the distraction. Rabe has certainly recorded the glib layer of human-potential talk with which these bastards have adorned themselves, but I don't know if he's recorded more than that. Hurlyburly's lather over the horrors of personal misbehavior escalates (naturally) to the monstrosities on the nightly television news. Human contact, however, eventually redeems the shaky Eddie. This supposedly hard-nosed entertainment is like a gift-store cheese log: crunchy on the outside but pure Velveeta inside.

Hurlyburly (R; 122 min.), directed by Anthony Drazan, written by David Rabe, based on his play, photographed by Changwei Gu and starring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey and Anna Paquin.

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro.

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