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Friday, Oct. 6, 2000


Snow business like show business

Hollywood, as we all know, ceased long ago to be a place where films are made; these days, it's simply the place where the deals are made, and the aspiring talent gets laid. But as product, as brand name, Hollywood depends so heavily on its own myth, that it goes to great lengths to maintain its illusion of glamour and romance.

Still, every now and then some ingrate comes along and really manages to give the system a good kick in its artificially whitened teeth, revealing the rot beneath the veneer. The last really telling blow was landed by Robert Altman with "The Player," but this month sees a welcome addition to the anti-Hollywood pantheon, director Anthony Drazan's "Hurlyburly," a big-screen adaptation of David Rabe's acclaimed play from 1984.

Taking its name from one of the witches' lines in "Macbeth" ("When the hurlyburly's done/When the battle's lost and won"), "Hurlyburly" follows a group of amoral movie-biz insiders -- played by Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri and Garry Shandling -- in a kind of Hollywood sleazeball super-collider, fueled by enough cocaine to fund a Colombian rebel faction.

Every generation gets the drug it deserves, and the cocaine high perfectly suited the greed generation of the '80s: hyped, arrogant and totally self-centered. The flurry of coke that swept the U.S. in that period -- touching everyone from the Celtics to the CIA to the Crips -- certainly didn't spare Hollywood, where the prevalence of nose candy led to sordid excess both on and off the screen (for example, the birth of "high concept" and the death of Don Simpson). In such a dumbed-down environment, the film suggests, one response is to numb-down, to narcotize oneself into not giving a damn.

"Hurlyburly" -- like "Boogie Nights" before it -- documents how addiction unhinges personality, while also highlighting the specific psycho-topography of Hollywood that enables this behavior. Rabe's tale veers between a sneering inside look at industry venality (which no doubt attracted the high-profile cast to this smallish film), and a bitterly cynical laugh in the face of the void.

Rabe's motor-mouthed script hits you from the get-go with the rush of a manic coke vibe, and dares you to keep up: All the mile-a-minute non-sequiturs, careening mood swings, crazy energy, and -- eventually -- raging psychosis and paranoia are here in full effect. And who better to take us through this saison d'enfer than Sean Penn? (Well, Robert Downey Jr. maybe, but it probably would have sent him back into detox.)

Penn -- in one of his best roles ever -- plays a casting director named Eddie, a disillusioned romantic turned hedonist, deep into excess and on the cusp of addiction. He's living in an extravagant Hollywood Hills condominium with his equally sleazy partner Mickey (Spacey), a coolly sarcastic sonofabitch who's "on leave" from his wife and kids, and also indulging his wild side.

These guys have the kind of relationship where they're close enough to share the same women, and competitive enough to resent it. Their conversations start in the living room, and continue -- virtually in mid-sentence -- on cell phones as they commute to the office in separate cars. "What kind of friendship is this?" asks Eddie, spinning out on the fact that Mickey has slept with his new flame Darleen (Robin Wright Penn). "Adequate," replies Mickey, after a hurtfully considered pause.

Nice guy, huh? But actually, Mickey is the sanest among them. Try Artie (Shandling), a slimy producer who drops off a 16-year-old runaway named Donna (Anna Paquin, "The Piano," "X-Men") for the guys to keep, "like a pet." But worst of all is Phil (Palminteri), a brutal lug and wannabe actor whom Eddie has taken under his wing. Eddie finds his chaotic thought processes amusingly "unique"; everybody else views Phil as a dangerously loose cannon. Mickey summarizes Eddie's bond to Phil with brutal acumen: "No matter how far you manage to fall, Phil will be lower."

Spacey has played a lot of cold, cynical bastards, but Mickey is the king of 'em all. His sharp jibes at Phil and Eddie provide much of the film's blacker-than-black humor, particularly his diatribe on the difference between "sarcastic" and "flip."

Palminteri, as Phil, is nothing short of astounding. His whining to Eddie about his marital problems is pathetic, while his paranoia about his "talent" and sexuality is both ridiculous and truly frightening. Look for the scene where a sniggering Eddie sets Phil up on a "blind date" with nude dancer and fellatrix Bonnie (Meg Ryan, cast shockingly against type); you won't know whether to laugh or gasp.

Eddie remains the sole damaged neuron that lights up in response to the "morality" signal; where Mickey is emotionless, Eddie wears his on his sleeve. He dreams of making things work with Darleen, and has enough sense to try and talk Phil out of his crazier ideas. That doesn't stop him from bedding jailbait, though. Eddie pleads for our sympathy, but it's your call as to whether he deserves it or not.

Sex as schmoozing, drugs as ego-boosters and friendships that are less than shallow -- is this the real Hollywood? Director Drazan reads the little white lines like tea leaves, trying to find the meaning hidden within. Somewhere there's a kernel of truth emerging from the detritus of obviously intelligent minds going supernova -- but can we find it?

Try this scene for a start: Eddie, after tooting up a few more lines, throws a script of his next project at Phil, describing it dismissively as "a piece of sh**." Phil holds it with almost religious wonder though, mouthing incredulously, "There's something in it for me?" After seeing "Hurlyburly," the existence of a film like "Gone in 60 Seconds" starts to make more sense.

"Hurlyburly" (Japanese title: "Casting Director") is playing at Shibuya Cine Palace.

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