Because it revealed the coke-snorting, ego-fueled corruption of Hollywood in the early 1980s with such acid wit, David Rabe's play Hurlyburly became a huge audience hit when it burst onto Broadway in 1984. Here was the inside stuff from the Left Coast, gotten up in a frenetic new language combining movie-industry salesmanship, New Age gibberish, and locker-room bravado. Not since Gloria Swanson imprisoned William Holden on Sunset Boulevard (1950) had we gotten such a dark vision of Hollywood's underside.
"Blah blah blah," these broken characters were forever saying, because nothing much mattered to them. Almost 15 years later (when "blah blah blah" has been replaced by "yadda yadda yadda") the whole thing seems a bit dated. The overdue film version of Hurlyburly features a reworked script by Rabe himself, some inventive directorial touches from Anthony Drazan (1992's Zebrahead, 1994's Imaginary Crimes), and an exemplary cast led by Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, and Meg Ryan. But the original excitement has diminished, and the self-destructive savagery that fueled the play now seems more theatrical than actual, even a little quaint. Hurlyburly may yet prove to be a play for the ages, but in this screen incarnation it seems simply aged -- upstaged in the interim by satirical assaults on Hollywood such as The Player (1992) and by real-life excesses and follies that outstrip fiction.
That said, it's also worth noting that Penn, his bad-boy days behind him, puts in another spectacular performance here -- perhaps the equal of his doomed killer in Dead Man Walking (1995). Wearing a mean little pencil-line mustache that brands him as a hustler and fraud, he plays Eddie, a self-absorbed cokehead who's smashed his moral compass against his ambition somewhere along the way. Penn turns him into the consummate desperado, given to screaming fits, crying jags, and what used to be called moments of truth. Snorting a line for breakfast, he explains, "I gotta wake up." Indeed. In this revamped version of Hurlyburly, it's Eddie's grudging, slowly dawning attempt to wake up from emotional oblivion that becomes the drama's focus -- and that lets a new ray of life into the proceedings.
Admirers of the play may think Rabe has pulled some of his old punches with the rewrite, and they may be right: Eddie's terminally cynical roommate and business partner, Mickey (Kevin Spacey), is still on the scene, and he remains as glib, cruel, and detached from life as ever. But Mickey's voice ("We're all going under, Eddie, so how about a little laugh along the way?") no longer dominates as it did onstage. Among the damned, Mickey is now strictly second-tier.
The remaining dramatis personae can be a semiharrowing lot, so long as you're willing to make a big leap and see them as tragic. There's the out-of-work actor Phil (Chazz Palminteri), a bewildered brute who finds himself frozen out of Eddie and Mickey's truculent word games and elaborate poses. "I don't know the goddamn code!" Phil laments. We suspect from the beginning that he'll continue to be the ultimate loser. Mercifully, this time around we get a little less of caustic, condescending Artie (Garry Shandling is ideally cast), a producer who is not quite the smash hit he claims to be. Rabe's women, always a source of heated argument, include Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), who has no qualms about two-timing between Eddie and Mickey, and who babbles on about her "inner emotional experience"; the teenage runaway Donna (Anna Paquin), whom sneering Artie presents as a sexual "care package" to his burned-out pals; and most important there's Bonnie (Meg Ryan), a world-weary stripper who turns out to be the conscience of the piece, its only real moral force.
"I think I'm gonna need a magnifying glass to find what's left of your good points," Bonnie announces to Eddie, who's collapsed in a coked-up puddle of paranoia and self-pity. But she doesn't hesitate to turn the magnifying glass on herself, too.
What these lost souls have in common, of course, is the inability to feel anything beyond sensation -- anything authentic. They've been seduced by drugs and sex and the appliances of success -- coke vials, BMWs, and cell phones -- but they've lost the ability to communicate or connect. Witness Eddie and Mickey: They live in the same stark Hollywood Hills condominium and work in the same office (doing what, we're not quite sure), but they drive separate cars and talk mostly by cell phone. And they spin out their self-absorbed tangles of language (always of vital import to a playwright) not for clarification but for competition. In one of Darlene's few lucid moments, she shouts at Mickey, "I can't stand the semantic insanity anymore."
Just so. By the end of these 124 minutes, you may feel the same way. Certainly you will have had your fill of bleak malaise and L.A. blah blah blah, circa 1984. But before we get to the end, Rabe now wants Eddie to make progress, to glimpse at least the possibility of redemption. It takes a major trauma -- the death of a friend -- to shake him out of his torpor, and by that time you may be so sick of his whining and selfishness that you don't give a damn if he saves himself or not. Still, when the raving's all done Penn has the capacity to make us feel the light bulb going on inside Eddie's head. In the wasteland we behold a little miracle, and for a moment the whole thing seems worthwhile.