Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Seldom has a film betrayed its stage origins more than "Hurlyburly." Based on the 1984 play by David Rabe, the story attempts to define the meaninglessness of life among four Hollywood industry types, played by Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, and Garry Shandling. Their lives revolve around drugs, booze, sex, jobs, and, obviously, lots and lots of high-sounding but intellectually empty talk. They fight, they argue, they analyze, they reflect, they bond, they snort coke, and they complain. Endlessly.
What may have worked on Broadway comes across on screen as pretentious and dull. The story is as artificial as its characters, which, in fact, is its real aim.
The central character is Eddie (Penn), a casting director who appears to be quite successful if his lavish, hillside home is any indication. But the house, all glass and plastic and chrome, is as sterile and barren as Eddie's drugged-out life. Penn plays the part with an intensity that lights up an otherwise dreary picture. Mickey (Spacey) is Eddie's business partner and, going through a divorce, his current roommate. He is cool, aloof, cynical, unfeeling, and sarcastic. It is a role tailor-made for Spacey, who seems to be doing the same part over and over.
Phil (Palminteri) is a violent, hotheaded, not-too-bright, ex-con, would-be-actor friend of Eddie, also going through a divorce. Phil's idea of a solution to his marital woes is to get the divorce and have a kid at the same time. Finally, there's Artie (Shandling), a sleazy producer who drops in on his buddies from time to time. The first time we meet him he has a homeless youngster named Donna (Anna Paquin) in tow, a girl he has just met in an elevator. He drops her off as a sex toy for the guys, and as an indication of the men's corruption they accept the gift and have her in bed within two minutes. Donna turns out to be the most sensible character in the movie, which gives you some idea of the depth of these people.
A couple of other women show up to offset the men's world: Robin Wright Penn as Darlene, a girlfriend of both Eddie and Mickey, who throws some tension into the two men's lives. And Meg Ryan, playing against type as a stripper named Bonnie whose loose lifestyle suits the men's appetite. The buddies are self absorbed and emotionally distracted. A meaningful relationship is something foreign to any of them. About a third of the dialogue goes on via cell phone, demonstrating further the detachment among them and everyone in their sphere. But as the story goes on, Eddie begins to do some soul searching and starts to feel a modicum of guilt for a life of nothingness.
The story's most obvious allusion is to Shakespeare's "Macbeth": "When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain? When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle's lost and won." The movie's opening shot is of thunder and lightning (on a TV screen), and, certainly, Eddie is fighting an uphill battle with life; like Shakespeare's protagonist he is constantly railing against his plight. At one point Eddie says, "We're all just background in each other's life, ...cardboard cutouts bumping around in a vague spin-off of...life." Compare that to Macbeth's despair at the end of his career: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Is this why Rabe's characters are so vacuous? Is it why they all talk like cardboard cutouts rather than real human beings?
Like Macbeth, Eddie comes to realize the pointlessness of his paranoid, insecure life. But it is not only "Macbeth" that provides timber for this literary field day. Take, for instance, the relationship between Eddie and his brutish friend, Phil. As Mickey says, Eddie needs Phil's friendship because it makes Eddie feel always superior. Straight out of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." And maybe Mickey needs Eddie's friendship in the same distorted way.
All of this might be of the slightest interest if it were presented in a black-humored, satirical way, say like Robert Altman's "The Player" or Spacey in "Swimming with Sharks." But it isn't. It's all done in dead earnest. Pity poor Earnest. Yet I had my hopes. Early in the film, one of the characters momentarily can't locate his car among all the expensive machinery parked outside Eddie's house. The cars all look alike to him. It's a quick, throwaway bit, but it promised things to come that never materialized.
The dialogue, totally stage-bound and phony in every way (paying deference to Shakespeare's "poor players," no doubt), is delivered so seriously it cannot be taken as parody, only as pomposity. The movie winds up neither funny nor revealing, just stuffy and longwinded.
New Line's DVD presentation is up to their usual high standards for production and content. The 1.75:1 screen ratio is almost as wide as its original theatrical version, and the picture's colors and fine-grained definition are wonderfully realistic. If I might find fault at all, it is that faces sometimes look a little too dark in tone. Needless to say, one's TV must be adjusted for proper color to begin with; most sets by default are way too bright. But even with correct color adjustment, faces can occasionally be too red or too dusky. Otherwise, the picture is rich and radiant.
The audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround, both of which sound pretty much alike since there isn't a lot of rear-channel information being sent to the back speakers, anyway. The DD 5.1 seems marginally more open and dynamic.
Also included on the disc are two full-feature audio commentaries. The first track is by director Anthony Drazan and writer David Rabe. The second track is by star Sean Penn, again screenwriter David Rabe, composer David Baerwald, and social commentator Janet Brown speaking on issues and themes in the film. To be honest, I had no interest in listening to either track as one time through the film was enough. There are also cast bios, filmographies, scene selections, and a trailer.
To sum up my reaction to the film proper, I repeat what Shakespeare wrote: "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Best critique I can think of.