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HURLYBURLY - 1998, Anthony Drazan
Stars: Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey

Hurlyburly is adapted from a 1984 play by David Rabe, which is undoubtedly one of the best I have read. The stage version of the piece runs for over three hours and the entire show takes place in one location. Its life on stage has been both controversial and acclaimed. Anthony Drazan’s film is brisker then the play, at a length of 122 minutes, and it is set in a variety of different places.

The film takes place in Hollywood, although Rabe argues that critics overemphasize its setting. It explores the dynamics and cyclical psychology of men, and the women who pass through their lives. The characters interact in a chaotic environment, but it is their mental lack of clarity that provides focus for the piece. Substance abuse is an important component of the film, since it enhances the nature of the dialogue.

Eddie (played by Sean Penn) can be considered the protagonist of the piece, but he doesn’t serve as a spokesman for the themes. Nor does he exist as a moral compass for the story, which fluctuates between brutal animosity and moments of genuine tenderness. As Eddie says in the film, he is trying to maintain a viable relationship with reality. The tumultuous feelings and ideas he has are disconnected and elusive. Throughout the course of the movie, he comes to realize that he is a spectator of his own turbulent existence, and his paranoia intensifies.

In order to maintain some sense of personal control, Eddie reflects his own uncontrollable tendencies in his best friend Phil (Chazz Palminteri). Phil is a wild force full of violence and rage, and his vulnerability makes him more dangerous. Eddie feels that if he keeps Phil on a leash, he is somehow restraining his own tumultuous urges. This kind of indirect, cerebrally confused relationship is what lies at the core of Hurlyburly. Without some kind of analysis, the men in this film are simply drug-addled misogynists complaining about existence.

Mickey (Kevin Spacey) is a friend of Eddie’s and Phil’s, but he is more superficially balanced than both of them combined. Mickey delivers casual, sarcastic assaults to Phil as a way of validating his own sense of worth and importance. He confirms his own masculinity through emotionless sex and the humiliation of visibly weak people. Although Mickey is not inclined to raise his voice or inflict physical harm on people, he is arguably one of the cruelest characters in the play.

All of these men see women as a vindictive, malevolent presence in their lives, and their romantic insecurity can probably be related to issues with control. Particularly in the case of Phil and Eddie, these characters want to dominate the women they interact with, and they feel threatened when they are unable to do so. They still cling to the idea that they can own something in every sense. What they are attempting is to remedy their lack of personal understanding through controlling women.

Of course, all of these ideas are my personal interpretations of the material, but I admire any piece of writing that welcomes this kind of involvement. David Rabe’s Hurlyburly is not simply a commentary on the inner-workings of Hollywood, although that may play a small role. It is one of the most intimate, challenging portrayals of men I have seen. The people occupying this story are not the sort of people you would necessarily want to befriend, but that doesn’t make them unworthy of examination.

In a 1999 interview with Charlie Rose, Sean Penn said that he is interested in films that are expressive instead of impressive. Anthony Drazan’s treatment of Hurlyburly is completely expressive, and its articulation deserves to be commended. Technically speaking, it’s a very well-made film, with dizzying visual style and exhilarating structure.

Any work like this is obviously reliant on the actors, and Hurlyburly makes no missteps in regards to casting. Sean Penn is one of the great American actors, and I believe that this is one of his finest achievements. He played Eddie on stage before taking part in this screen treatment, and his personal understanding of the character is visible. This is a complete performance in every sense, drawing us in with broad physical alterations while also demonstrating the importance of subtlety.

As an actor, Kevin Spacey is on par with Penn, and his knowledge of the craft is evident again in this film. He also performed this part onstage in the past, and he illustrates an intuition for the style of dialogue and acting required. Chazz Palminteri is outstanding as Phil, providing us with an intimate and painfully honest portrait. All the other actors deserve mention as well – Robin Wright Penn, Garry Shandling, Anna Paquin and Meg Ryan all turn in convincing and memorable performances.

Hurlyburly asks us to spend time with flawed and occasionally despicable characters, but ignoring it on that basis is frankly closed-minded. This piece asks us to study why these people behave the way they do, and it presents us with great writing and acting to make that experience engaging. I think this is one of the best American movies of the 1990s, and it is a personal favorite.