On the surface, David Rabe’s play Hurlyburly is about Hollywood, specifically the immense self-absorption and disconnection felt by the inhabitants of a company town whose assembly lines manufacture ephemeral fantasies. But scratch a little deeper and what’s exposed is a bloody, pitched battle between the sexes. Rabe’s self-lacerating men know a few things about fear and loathing, and they treat women like the human equivalents of baseball cards: Their stats are carefully noted and they’re traded among friends.
In the superb film adaptation of Hurlyburly, written by Rabe and directed with verve by Anthony Drazan (Zebrahead), seven lost souls collide with the sharp cracks of pool balls in a championship game. The action revolves around the transiently chic Hollywood Hills house of two casting agents, the mercurial Eddie (Sean Penn) and the sly Mickey (Kevin Spacey), who are engaged in a passive-aggressive tug-of-war over Darlene (Robin Wright Penn).
The frequently coked-up Eddie is distracted from his own problems by Phil (Chazz Palminteri), an actor with a hair-trigger temper and penchant for violence, and Artie (Garry Shandling), a smooth-but-neurotic producer. Phil’s twisted into knots by the maternal urges of his estranged wife, while the glib Artie shows up at their house with a "care package": the nubile teen runaway, Donna (Anna Paquin).
During one particularly long, drug-fueled night, Eddie invites over Bonnie (Meg Ryan), a single mother and exotic stripper, who’s always up for a good time. But the revelry quickly turns ugly and Bonnie, for one, isn’t afraid to put the cards on the table. She asks Eddie point-blank if he thinks desperation is the private domain of him and his buddies.
It’s here that Rabe smoothly switches gears, from indulging in the high-life hijinks of aging frat boys to revealing their crumbling underpinnings. As Eddie vacillates spastically between begging Bonnie for a blow job and painfully revealing that even if Darlene loves him, he just can’t feel it, Rabe cuts to the quick of men who have forgotten the rules to the game they’re playing with women, but know they can’t quit until someone — anyone — has won.
Hurlyburly is constructed of quicksilver, and Drazan has found actors who can navigate its emotional crests and troughs. Meg Ryan is perhaps the biggest surprise, as a marginalized and exploited figure who turns out to be the voice of reason, while Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey are the film’s id and superego.
But the heart of David Rabe’s tumultuous Hurlyburly is Sean Penn, who embodies all the contractions of a man who understands he’s a product of his world, but can’t seem to find a way to live in it.