Consider 1998 the Year of the Man (and His Friends). Picking up where The Full Monty left off, the year's better male relationship movies ranged in setting from gay celebrity circles to theaters of war, and included Gods and Monsters, The Thin Red Line, Velvet Goldmine, and even Waking Ned Devine. But in the worst examples of this year's model, the main character is white, depressed, and misogynistic; has lots of friends; and wants our sympathy for his brutal "honesty." This fraternity of actors, writers, and directors includes Your Friends & Neighbors' Jason Patric and Neil LaBute, Very Bad Things' Christian Slater and Peter Berg, and now the boys who hurl Hurlyburly in our faces--playwright David Rabe, director Anthony Drazan, and actor Sean Penn.
Of course, the guys in question argue that they offer a critique of misogyny at the millennium rather than an endorsement of bad behavior. As Rabe summarizes the film version of his mid-'80s ensemble drama: "It's about this certain group male thing that can happen" when undomesticated men (Penn, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling) in the Hollywood "biz" share an apartment, work, drugs, and women. There's no question, however, that Hurlyburly beseeches us to connect at some level with Penn's Eddie, a coke-addled casting agent, and his bruiser chum, Phil (Palminteri), who brags about his "record-setting" sperm count and who's prone to head-butting women when he's not throwing them out of moving cars. After all, these drugged philosophes--who wax "profound" on friendship, media hegemony, modern warfare, and fatherhood--are groveling towards meaning, connection, or redemption of some kind.
"The ancients could look to the heavens, which in their minds was inhabited by...this divine onlooker," Eddie agonizes. "We've got anchor persons and talking heads. We've got politicians who decide life-and-death issues on the basis of media consultants." And then he pukes. With lines like these, Hurlyburly poses as a postmodern treatise on the futility of communication. Shots through water, mirrors, and glass further suggest an infinitely refracted reality as much as a drug-induced haze. Long after the movie opens with Eddie and his bad case of channel surfing, we arrive at one moral of the story: This is your brain on TV. The result of this communicative hall of mirrors is the kind of self-alienation that leads Eddie to fumble with his zipper and beg Meg Ryan's drug/sex-groupie: "I'm not some goddamn TV image. I'm a real person! Suck my dick."
Funny, then, that while these buddies flail--and fail--to express themselves, they make themselves abundantly clear on the topic of women. Much of the film's feverish dialogue consists of rants such as these: "You didn't shoot her. Then she'll take you back--she always does." "Fuck her, the whore. What's she thinkin'?" "I don't think she thinks." "None of 'em do." "I don't know what they do." "They express their feelings, blah blah blah." Small consolation that Hurlyburly's women get to play muse when they're not playing sex toys, since that fact is largely lost on the men. "They're fucking ghouls, Mickey," Eddie concludes. "They eat out our hearts."
As if its makers are engaged in an art-imitates-life pissing match with rival filmmaker misogynists by working out their competition through women, Hurlyburly goes over the top with a business negotiation of sorts. "I found her on the elevator," Artie (Shandling) explains when he presents Donna (Anna Paquin) to his pals. "She said her boyfriend tried to kill her so she was staying off the street. You want her?" After the men haggle over this "viable piece of ass" and ask whether the "little care package" "comes with an instruction manual," Eddie spells out the deal. "So she'll be like this pet, and we can keep her and fuck her if we want to." Then they do. So much for subtle critique.