Tuned in to CNN last October to find Thomas Mapother Cruise, that most discreet of
filmdom’s twenty-mil-a-pop club, beaming as he addressed the world press from atop Her
Majesty’s courthouse steps. He had emerged victorious from his libel suit against some
catty British tabloid with the brass to declare his marriage to slick Nic Kidman a sham, a
toothsome facade disguising his and her mutual preference for HOT GAY SEX. As usual,
Tom looked fucking awesome, blasting the “vicious lies” that would ruin his family or
destroy his family or whatever it is that mere lies could have no hope of doing to his
It’s now a remarkably familiar scene. As Clinton’s approval ratings soar,
more than ever there seems to be a bankability to the sham marriage. Maybe
Cruise should have cashed in on it and come out with the truth. For if he really
is a bottom gun, the more vociferously he denies the rumors, the more likely we
are to believe them.
Ours is a moment of collective confusion, to be sure. Nothing is too strange to
be believed or disbelieved when no one believes anything. So, it is with
profoundly sharp timing that director Anthony Drazan’s screen adaptation of the ’80s
play Hurlyburly arrives — with its own set of co-star marrieds — to stir the pot
of pondering. Though written in the era of Reagan’s sham economy, Rabe’s
play has adapted handily to the Lewinsky moment, when even our President
has been reduced to just another cock sniffing around the office for a willing
pair of lips.
Hurlyburly follows Eddie (Sean Penn), a cokehead, pothead, alcoholic
dweeb movie producer, on his surprising trip out of his jaded sham of a life back to the
land of believing.
Eddie and his buddies are the sort of superficially successful, artistically defunct
film biz pros that float through the backwash of Hollywood’s champagne desperately
seeking chicks and deals. His business partner and temporary roommate, Mickey (Kevin
Spacey), has walked out on his wife and kids, and now bides his time scoping for new
sexual conquests — the most recent being Eddie’s “very special lady,” Darlene (Robin
Eddie’s other friend, Phil (Chazz Palminteri) is a “what-have-I-seen-him-in” TV
actor with violent anti-social tendencies, who rambles on about clouds blocking his
thoughts — the type who might at least consider being a decent husband to his nagging wife
were he not an entirely self-absorbed loser.
Rounding out this band of merry men is Artie (Garry Shandling), by all
appearances the most professionally stable of the bunch, who nevertheless performs the
roles of court jester and de facto pimp. In this latter mode, he arrives on Eddie’s doorstep
one bright afternoon with Donna (Anna Paquin), a trailer moppet fresh from the Midwest,
whom he grabbed off an elevator to offer as a gift to the house. Donna is
Hurlyburly’s vision of a liberated woman: she views the boys’ addiction-addled
machismo not as oppressive but as a means to put a fab roof over her head.
So the boys toke, smoke, snort and drink, volleying Varietybites and shit-faced philosophy as they lounge around Eddie’s delectably deco hilltop pad or speed along
the Pacific Coast Highway in Euro convertibles. Eddie badgers Mickey about screwing
Darlene; Mickey is immovably glib in his lack of remorse. Phil rants to Eddie about his
wife and their problems; Mickey is immovably glib in his lack of interest. Donna cavorts
with Eddie or whomever has her for the hour. Artie and the boys give Phil a crack at
Bonnie (Meg Ryan), the slut they’ve all but put out to pasture, and we sense the cycle
spinning ostensibly inexorably on, cold and glistening as the ocean.
Work is incidental, family is conversation, dick is reality and desire is pussy,
pussy, pussy. Me-generation politics have paved the way for a sexually regressed society
in which horny bastards like Eddie can score big. Sex is the most fundamental high for
these disaffected souls, and they ride it roughshod over the souls of demi-reps like Bonnie.
But these are characters we’ve seen before, in every other tale of johns and whores — or so
it seems. Several pinched-brained critics looked no further, dismissing
Hurlyburly’s hedonistic loser aesthetic as so ’87. But they’re missing the
point: the film wisely stakes its currency not on its cynical outlook, but on our culture’s
timeless devotion to l-o-v-e (see Titanic). We’re all part john, part whore, but we
still believe in loftier principles and pine for something authentic.
So indeed, just when it seems that Caligula himself would rise out of Eddie’s hot
tub, the seasons turn and, forgive the pun, a changing wind blows through the picture. A
hurlyburly, in case you’re wondering, is defined as “a turmoil; uproar; hubbub.” In the
film, the hurlyburly is the result of a domino effect of tiny cataclysms that shock Eddie’s
quixotic heart back to life. The curtain lifts for a brief moment, and Eddie sees his life for
what it is, his friends for who they are. His awakening, and Sean Penn’s masterful
rendering of it, are worth any degree of outrage the first half of this film might provoke.
Thankfully, there are no rain-soaked scenes of Penn testifying about wanting to be
a better man or needing a woman for his completion. Don’t come expecting goodness and
hugs to explode from the final reel. Skilled craftsman that he is, Penn simply irons out the
wrinkles of wasted time and soulless compulsion that had worn deeply across Eddie’s face
and gnarled his body. In realizing that life need not be a nasty joke told by him at his own
expense, he starts to look different, sharper. The change is subtle and amazing, and the
film would be pointless without it.
It seems no small coincidence that the actress portraying Eddie’s life-affirming
woman is Penn’s real-life wife, the Princess Bride herself. Presumably, his love for Robin
Wright was a life-changing hurlyburly in its own right (for damn sure, he never was this
good acting opposite Madonna), and, by most accounts, the Penns are a genuinely loving
couple. Why, when she was carjacked a couple of years ago, there was Sean, dutifully
threatening to kill the perps as he shepherded her through the after-assault of press, police
and emergency medical technicians. That’s a husband.
So maybe Robin and Sean do share a bedroom, and perhaps Hillary
really has forgiven Bubba. Maybe Tom and Nicole are a testament to the joys of
monogamy. We’ve gotten so accustomed to seeing the sham that we miss the
truth in front of our noses. Hurlyburly certainly helps foster our cynicism,
but it ends with a dare to put it aside. But do you really care? C’mon, let’s fuck
and call it a millennium.