directed by Anthony Drazan
Don't miss Sean Penn's extraordinary performance in Hurlyburly. I know for a fact that very few critics saw Hurlyburly at the time most of the awards groups voted (mea culpa) so no critics' trophies point in the direction of Penn's honesty and daring. But though Nick Nolte is prizeworthy (in Affliction or anything else), Penn's performance goes deeper. As Eddie, a Los Angeles film producer on a two-day cocaine jag, unable to hold his emotions together, Penn opens a door to contemporary misery and goes there. He physicalizes Eddie's spiritual torment, not through flamboyant Nicolas Cage gestures, but by making him subtly repugnant. His shortness, soft features (adding a measly thin mustache) and whimpering voice seem evidence of moral laxity; he affects a brazen look to hide his embarrassment. Through a shifting eye or tense shoulder muscle, it's an unsettling, marvelous illustration of modern man's distress.
Initially Hurlyburly studied male braggadocio, revealing insensitivity behind the approval that gangs of men give to each other's horniness and frustration. It was written before the phrase "angry white male" was thought up and popularized in the media to amend unfathomable social inequities and so its candor seems more forthright?bolder?than the placation offered by Affliction and Neil LaBute. Every raw, racy recrimination ("I'm thinkin' about football, and you gotta be here with your tits and ass, and your shrunken clothes and your shriveled jeans. Football doesn't have a chance against it") cuts through the characters' pretexts to their weaknesses. Accusing Rabe of misogyny is pointless. Hurlyburly is unnerving because Rabe shows how sexual defensiveness has mutated into all-out antagonism.   Eddie feels isolated in his suffering, but he isn't alone. The subject of man allaying his degradation through the temporary distractions of drugs and sex may have an 80s basis but director Anthony Drazan brings out the timeless truth. He stylizes the film so that it's practically an addendum to Altman's The Player, connecting the blase amorality of the film community to cosmic chaos. None of the characters?Eddie, his roommate and business partner Mickey (Kevin Spacey) and their hanger-on friends New York actor Phil (Chazz Palminteri) and producer Artie (Garry Shandling)?can escape the miasma. As they age, bachelor reflexes slow down and reverence for women hardens. Their misogyny is erect and strutting. It's the basis of wounded-male self-esteem and infects all aspects of their lives, particularly their speech?that is, Rabe's intense, double-edged verbal blades: "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," or "I'm gonna need a magnifying glass to find what is left of your good points."   If Hurlyburly doesn't capture popular fancy it's only because we've forgotten the pleasures of theater, which primarily come from language. And along with theater's demise, structure, form and narrative are gone, too. The whole way of examining human conditions through dramatically developed language and artfully arranged exposition?the theatrical confession?has been extinguished by bluntness. So the obvious pessimism of Affliction and Your Friends and Neighbors is easily sold to audiences as the latest vibe while Hurlyburly's incisiveness may alienate them exactly because of the precision and relentlessness of its language. (Rabe might say to Schrader and LaBute what Mickey says to Eddie: "It's not the times that are dark. It's you.")   Rabe makes his characters talk out their compacted miseries; he's accurate about the layers of education, savvy and pretense when Eddie performs an exegesis on a friend's suicide note. Or one man warns another, "Don't get clandestine on me!" Or "Artie, Eddie, Phil are men?she hates men. It's a goddamn syllogism!" Or when Eddie argues that a woman's casual statement, "I don't care," actually means, "It doesn't make any difference," as a reduction of their spent relationship.   Penn does these verbal gymnastics with emotional agility. This is one of those great, unexpected film performances, as when Fredric March took over Death of a Salesman, or Vanessa Redgrave's Nina in The Sea Gull?that outdo the stage legends associated with the roles. William Hurt was wonderfully saturnine as Eddie on Broadway but Penn is right for the way Rabe has rewritten and improved his original play (including the Desert Storm references that give the play an appropriate, pre-millennial angst and disgust). The way Eddie tells the truth to Phil, his brutal but dependent friend, makes him a mirror of all the characters' anxieties. His cutting remarks ingeniously summarize a screwed-up way of living that makes Hurlyburly about sex, Hollywood, America, people:   "You, you have certain marketable human qualities, you have to exploit them, that's all I'm saying; you have certain qualities, you have to exploit them. I mean we all know the m.o. out here, right? They take an interesting story, right? They distort it, right? Cut whatever little truth is out, on the basis that it's unappealing, but leave the surface so it's familiar. Cars, trucks, trees, hats, so they got their scam, but that's where you come in. Because they need a lot of authentic sounding, looking people?high-quality people, such as yourself, who need a buck. So like every other whore in this town, myself included, you learn to lend your whatever little bit of truth you can scrounge up, to this total, systematic sham. Thereby exonerating the viewer from ever having to confront directly, the fact that he is spending his life face to face with total shit, that's all I'm saying."   The men in Hurlyburly are stripped to their gonads, their soft spots left hanging. And the women, who are not merely victims, are also caught up in the insanity. Robin Wright-Penn as Eddie's love Darlene is a startling siren. On first sight she's as beautiful as Julie Christie in Shampoo but she's playing a hollow sexual icon with panic echoing inside; it's the most effective of her earnest performances. Anna Paquin as the runaway teen Donna manages poignancy and toughness and Meg Ryan finally plays down cutesiness as the roaming hooker Bonnie. She's the biggest improvement on the Broadway production where director Mike Nichols encouraged Judith Ivey to perform the role as a stand-up routine; with every laugh Ivey got the play died. Drazan doesn't commit Nichols' audience-pleasing offense. He's true to the text and is unexpectedly inventive. The sequence of Eddie and Mickey communicating via cell phones while separately traversing the L.A. freeways and canyons, then crisscrossing each other in their driveway, is marvelously cinematic?the one thing Shampoo lacked. In Eddie and Darlene's fruitless sexual reunion Drazan breaks apart their coupling with matched shots of their hands tracing the lonely air; these say as much?and concisely?as the dislocated sex scenes in L'Avventura. Several years ago at a screening of Drazan's debut film, the earnest, inadequate Zebrahead, I met him and politely shook his hand. I'd like to shake it now in gratitude.
My Name is Joe