Anyone who ever whined about the lost art of conversation might be tempted to rethink that complaint after enduring the motormouths of "Hurlyburly." It's an annoying talkfest that has an ensemble of high-caliber actors, led by Sean Penn in blown-gasket mode and an icy cool Kevin Spacey, talking and talking until their heads must hurt. Ours do.
These thespians, clearly relishing a golden opportunity to ham it up with the bile, cynicism, sarcasm, nihilism and misogyny of David Rabe's screenplay, talk loudly, in long, unedited sentences, turning shrill whenever the opportunity arises. But their characters ultimately say little about the human condition that hasn't been stated more convincingly, and less self-consciously, before. Excess kills, and any possibility of sympathy for these creations is murdered by the wanton verbiage.
The setting is "Hollywood Hills ... a little while ago," and by all indications -- except the profusion of ever-present cell phones -- this is the '80s, when Rabe gained critical acclaim for his acclaimed play of the same name. "Hurlyburly" sometimes wants to be a period piece, and sometimes doesn't. The film, directed by Anthony Drazan ("Zebrahead," "Imaginary Crimes") instead comes off as merely dated.
Penn and Spacey are Eddie and Mickey, respectively, partners in a successful casting agency and roommates who share a sleek, ultramodern glass-and-terrazzo palace that offers dizzying views of Los Angeles and a location convenient for various trysts and spontaneous parties. Their small circle of friends (or enemies in disguise) includes Phil, a violent wannabe actor played by Chazz Palminteri; know-it-all Hollywood player Artie (Garry Shandling); Darlene (Robin Wright Penn), a lithe blonde who shuttles between Eddie and Mickey; teen-age runaway Donna (Anna Paquin); and Bonnie, an exotic dancer portrayed by Meg Ryan, playing hard against type.
The quartet of nominal buddies spend the bulk of their time flying high on booze, pot and cocaine, dissecting the minutia of their lives, and raving on and on. These are the kind of 3 a.m. conversations, fueled by chemicals, that have the participants imagining that they might be stumbling into great truths about one another and/or their places in the universe.
Rabe's sad grotesques nevertheless are much too engrossed with their own problems to make real emotional connections. Self-absorption here is raised to a fine art, and maybe that's the point. Eddie and Darlene, following a particularly passionate coupling, allude to the dilemma. "We're all so all over the place all the time," she says. "Self-absorbed," he replies. Darlene: "And distracted." Eddie: "I am my own biggest distraction."
Action, or what little actually occurs in "Hurlyburly," mostly happens off stage, only indirectly driving the plot. Anna, called a sexual "care package" by Artie, sleeps with Eddie, bickers with Phil and leaves before returning to make a brief appearance at the film's end. Bonnie has a brief date with Phil before he shoves her out of a moving car. A couple wander into an apparently satisfying relationship. A baby makes an appearance just long enough to offer a contrast between the infant's innocence and the ugliness of those around her. A member of the quartet dies. Mostly, though, unpleasant people sit around talking us to death. And I'm exhausted.