Hurlyburly (1998)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright Penn, Chazz Palminteri
Extras: 2 Commentary Tracks, Theatrical Trailer

Hollywood has always depended on star power to sell tickets at the box office. In recent years, this has become more important than ever, as studios put big money into star vehicles (it horrifies me to think that people will go see a movie simply because Julia Roberts is in it). Because of this trend, it’s always nice to see a film that has an ensemble cast of well-known actors who are all sharing the spotlight. "Hurlyburly" is such a film. "Hurlyburly" stars Sean Penn as Eddie, a Hollywood casting director who lives life in the fast-lane. Eddie likes to do drugs, have sex, and generally abuse himself. Eddie lives with his business partner, Mickey (Kevin Spacey). Whereas Eddie is generally manic and out-of-control, Mickey is the epitome of calm and cool. Despite their different personalities, Eddie and Mickey make a good team, both at work and at home. As the film opens, Eddie is jealous because Mickey has gone out with Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), whom Eddie has dated in the past. Sensing this jealousy, Mickey agrees to step aside so that Eddie and Darlene can attempt a relationship. Meanwhile, Eddie’s friend Phil (Chazz Palminteri) has been kicked out of his house by his wife and is constantly hanging around Eddie’s house. Phil, a would-be actor, is a violent man, who has a history of hitting women. Phil doesn’t seem to understand that he sabotages everything in his life.

The film then jumps ahead one year. Eddie and Darlene are dating and Eddie has sworn off drugs. Phil is getting a divorce, and Mickey is still playing the cool guy. But, things start to go wrong for Eddie as he is torn between his love for Darlene and his longing for the old days of partying with his pals. As Eddie gets caught in a web of confusion, things in his life begin to go wrong and he is forced to search for his true identity.

"Hurlyburly" is based on a play by David Rabe (Jill Clayburgh’s husband), who also wrote the screenplay for the film version. The film’s origin is obvious in its dialogue-driven style. Many scenes don’t necessarily revolve around action as much as they deal with what the characters are saying. The original play took place only in Eddie’s house and that’s where also the majority of the film takes place. However, Rabe was able to move the action outside of the main location by having many scenes take place with the characters conversing on cel-phones. This is not to imply that the film is static. Even during the scene’s in Eddie’s house, the characters are generally moving around the room and director Anthony Drazan has edited the film so that the dialog doesn’t grow monotonous.

As I mentioned in the opening, there are many well-known stars in "Hurlyburly" and it is this acting power which drives the film. Sean Penn gives a very intense performance as Eddie. Penn comes across as very believable, due to his bulging eyes and veiny temple. Penn has the most dialogue in the film and delivers it all in a desperate manner that makes us buy into Eddie’s pain. Kevin Spacey (sporting bleached blonde hair) plays the ultra-cool Mickey to the hilt. Imagine Mickey as a silmy version of the character Spacey played in L.A. Confidential. Chazz Palminteri steals the film as Phil. In a film full of reprehensible characters, Palminteri is able to make Phil the character that you hate the most. While Eddie and Mickey have some redeeming qualities beneath their sick exteriors, Phil is rotten to the core. Robin Wright Penn does a good job as Darlene, who wants to love Eddie, but is put off by his self-destructive ways. There are also great performances in smaller roles. Garry Shandling plays Artie, a wiseguy who likes to hang out at Eddie’s and do drugs. Meg Ryan plays a hooker (?) who comes running when Eddie calls her, only to be set up with Phil. And Anna Pacquin plays a reckless young runaway willing to do ANYTHING to hang out at Eddie’s.

The New Line Home Video DVD of "Hurlyburly" is packed with the quality and extras that we’ve come to expect from them. The film is presented in a <$PS,letterboxed> 1.85:1 format and is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs. The picture is suitably framed, as Drazan’s camera focuses mostly on people and not action. The picture is very clear and the color balancing is correct, rendering every shot very faithfully. Most of Eddie’s house is white and the whites in the transfer are very true, not gray. There is no artifacting or scratches on the source print and the compression is very good. Small traces of <$pixelation,pixelation> are noticeable throught the transfer but no <$chroma,chroma noise> is evident. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> soundtrack supplied on the disc is adequate, but not very active, as this is a mostly dialogue driven film.

The DVD includes the original theatrical trailer for the film. There are extensive biographies and filmographies of all of the major talents involved and the release also contains two separate running-length audio commentaries. The first commentary features director Drazan and screenwriter Rabe discussing the journey that the story made from the stage to the screen. While this commentary is interesting to a point, it is not scene-specific at all, and one is left wishing that they would talk about what is being shown instead of how many drafts the script went through. Unfortunately the second commentary on the disc is just as disappointing. It features Sean Penn, David Rabe, and social commentator Janet Brown, who focuses on the themes of the film. Penn’s comments integrate so badly that it seems as if they were taken from an interview and then mixed in to match the film. Brown’s comments generally have little to do with the on-screen action, while she focuses on what the film is "really" about, going so far to compare it to Macbeth (!?). During the silences on this <$commentary,commentary track>, select musical cues are highlighted. While any <$commentary,commentary track> is usually better than none, it’s surprising that both of the <$commentary,commentary track>s on "Hurlyburly" are quite disappointing.

"Hurlyburly" is a perfect example of what can happen when people work together to make a product. The film succeeds by spotlighting the talents of its fine cast, and the DVD shines by showing the depth that the medium can have. Give it a try.