1998, R, 122 min. Directed by Anthony Drazan. Starring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling, Robin Wright, Anna Paquin, Meg Ryan.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 15, 1999

Hurlyburly is a screeching, white-knuckled, razor-tongued descent into the foulest recesses of the shattered psyches of a quartet of Hollywood Hills scumbags. The film's biggest surprise is that David Mamet had nothing to do with it -- that honor falls to screenwriter David Rabe who adapted the script from his stage play, and director Drazan (Zebrahead), who fleshes out the material and fills each frame with enough vitriolic self-loathing to sink a fleet of Alpha Male fuckups. It's a boys-night-out gab-fest from Hell as roommates Eddie (Penn) and Mickey (Spacey) booze, snort, swallow, and holler with pals Artie (Shandling) and Phil (Palminteri) night after night, week after week. Discourse runs the gamut from women and why they're so lousy to sex to Eddie's ongoing existential, coke-fueled rants on karma and the universe. What it all boils down to, though, is that these guys are schmucks of the “highest” order. An Oscar-worthy Penn plays Eddie as a braniac, motormouth loser, too smart for his own good, so much so that he's actually blindingly stupid. Mickey exemplifies the term “cynical bastard,” though at one point he notes aloud the difference between being flip and sarcastic, noting “I can do both.” Phil, an ex-con bruiser with a penchant for using his fists on anything that moves across his narrow field of vision, is the group's wild card, desperate for some sort of renewal from his ex-wife but unable to do anything but victimize women (and men). Artie, the slick Hollywood producer, is the most clichéd here: At one point he picks up a young girl (Paquin) in an elevator and trundles her off to Mickey and Eddie's pad where he offers her up like some psycho-sexual sacrifice. Scary stuff. Like Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, Hurlyburly delves into the male mindset and comes up with a fistful of sick. Rabe's dialogue is fired off in nonstop salvos that come at you like testosterone-laden Stinger missiles. These guys, for all their seeming desire to get things right, wouldn't know how to do the right thing if Spike Lee and Mister Rogers engaged them in a double-teaming bitch-slap festival. Rabe makes them out to be wasted ejaculate. The question is, does Rabe see them as the male mirror or only a broken shard? The film's female population is treated nearly as poorly, with a doe-eyed Ryan serving as a shrill party girl and Wright Penn as a wedge between Mickey and Eddie. And Paquin? She's on the order of a busty little California roll: Here, try some, it's yummy. That Hurlyburly can delight with its barbed-wire-and-blow anti-witticisms while simultaneously making you crave a good 'n' hot battery acid shower to remove the misogyny from your soul is an accomplishment in itself. That this superb, brilliantly evocative cast is along for the ride as well is magic. Black magic, sure, but magic nonetheless.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Sean Penn Films
The Gunman
Sean Penn stars as a regretful ex-mercenary in this international game of cat and mouse

Steve Davis, March 20, 2015

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
This story of a milquetoast with a wild imagination stars Ben Stiller and is as pretty as it is busy. Opens 12/25.

Kimberley Jones, Dec. 20, 2013

More by Marc Savlov
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Welcome back, Mister Wick: Everyone's favorite merciless killer gets more human and more intriguing

May 17, 2019

Carmine Street Guitars
Spend time with the quiet artisans who make the instruments that rock & roll is built upon

May 10, 2019


Hurlyburly, Anthony Drazan, Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling, Robin Wright, Anna Paquin, Meg Ryan

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle