Comin' atcha with a level of dialogue intensity comparable to David Mamet's, Hurlyburly is - - unsurprisingly - - based on a play, an off-Broadway hit from 1984 by David Rabe. Despite previous offers, it took Anthony Drazan (Zebrahead) to convince Rabe to adapt the stage version. Drazan had a struggle getting funding, however, because like The Player before it, Hurlyburly isn't entirely kind about the menfolk of Hollywood.
Rabe's characters are not attractive. Despite some honesty, Eddie's wheedling and mania lose him sympathy votes; Mickey is worse - - charm is useless in tandem with his self-obsession. Chazz Palminteri's Phil fights (not always successfully) to keep his violence in check and Artie (Shandling) is just a schmuck, on one occasion turning up with underage Donna (Anna Paquin), who is left with Eddie and Mickey as a "care package".
However, as Neil LaBute proved with In The Company Of Men and Your Friends&Neighbors, characters needn't be likeable to be compelling. Penn in particular gives a hugely energetic performance, investing Eddie with remarkable emotional range. His portrayal of masculine crisis is raw and poignant. Spacey's Mickey is the ideal straight man to the manic Eddie; while ostensibly the best friend, his restraint just highlights further the simmering barbarity and downright insincerity in these relationships.
Though this is a film about masculinity and the female roles are limited, Darlene is similarly invested with layers of complexity by Wright Penn and Meg Ryan gives a performance thankfully closer to Addicted To Love than You've Got Mail. Meanwhile, Paquin makes Donna intriguing as the only character with any strength (despite being a vagrant who trades sex for room and board).
Hurlyburly only suffers on two counts: its origins in the '80s are telling, dating the film somewhat; and it's just too damn long for such a talk-orientated narrative. The dialogue may create mesmeric rhythms, but when a climactic car crash is followed by yet another half-hour of soul-searching, then the audience's attention is bound to wane.
Powerful performances and sharp dialogue carry this wordy exploration of the frustrations of the modern male. The pontification of these low-ranking Hollywood players only descends into tiresomeness as the timer ticks past 100 minutes.
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