Published December 1, 1998
Hurlyburly directed by Anthony Drazan and written (from his stageplay) by David Rabe has an all-star cast, but it cannot escape from the poverty of its script, in which nothing very much happens (people come and go) and all the characters talk exactly alike—that is in a kind of souped-up psychobabble with an occasionally Pinterian edge to it that is meant to sound clever but is most of the time just pointless nonsense—pseudo-profundities shading off into mere gibberish. There does seem to be—as in Affliction and most other movies meant to be taken seriously these days—a sort of feminist point to it all. Eddie (Sean Penn) and Mickey (Kevin Spacey), two TV executives, share a bachelor apartment in the Hollywood Hills where they are frequently joined by the psycho ex-con, Phil (Chazz Palminteri), and their neurotic neighbor, Artie (Gary Shandling), and the four of them seem to spend most of their time not spent abusing drugs abusing women.
Mickey and Eddie are rivals for the affection of Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), but they seem to pass her back and forth between them for the sake of their friendship. Mickey, at any rate, is just taking a vacation from his wife and kids. Phil has left his wife and kids back in Toledo and is now stepping out with Susie with whom, at the beginning of the film, he has just broken up. Eddie tells him not to worry. If he hasn’t shot her, she’ll take him back. Talking about the breakup, Phil says that Susie became to him just “a cloud saying mean things about my ideas. . . Then I whacked her.” Later he throws the exotic dancer, Bonnie (Meg Ryan) out of her own car while it is moving when she says something he doesn’t understand.
In all these instances, the film presents us with politically charged images of men mistreating women, or treating them as property. The chief example, however, comes with the airheaded Donna (Anna Paquin), whom Artie (Gary Shandling) found camped out in the elevator of their apartment building and brought round to Eddie and Mickey’s place for their entertainment as “a little care package.” Unsurprised or shocked, Mickey and Eddie note: “So she’ll be like this pet. . .We can keep her and f*** her if we want to.” And they do too, until Phil, having characterized her as an “invasion of t**s and a**, invading my individuality,” headbutts her. She then leaves to hitchhike somewhere else, reappearing with a backpack covered in patches from Vermont, Florida and other east coast places near the end of the picture.
Like Wade in Affliction, Eddie has at least the decency to be troubled by his own behavior, if not the psychic strength to behave better. I think we’re supposed to regard him almost sympathetically—because, as he observes, he at least understands that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Other benighted souls do think they know. Or, like us, they persist in the irrational expectation of knowing what Eddie and the others are talking about. When Donna confesses to Eddie that she never went to any of the places blazoned on her patches, but only hitchhiked toward San Francisco as far as Oxnard, Eddie says, “I know where Oxnard is.” She is inordinately pleased by this comment, and he wonders what’s so great about knowing where Oxnard is?
“It’s great when people know what each other are talking about,” she observes trenchantly. Unfortunately, this is not a movie which has been made on that principle.