L.A. denizen and casting director Eddie (Penn) is just beginning to realise that he is drowning in a polluted sea of amorality, and he's a long way from the shoreline. The three closest 'friends' in his life (Spacey, Palmentari, Shandling) are equally dubious, and it takes the arrival of teen waif Donna (Paquin) for him to begin to wake up from his coke fuelled stupor.
Pulling together a powerhouse cast that makes the mouth water, Anthony Drazan's adaptation of David Rabe's stage play is an attack on Hollywood with gusto and conviction. LA fixations such as drug dependency, the inability to really communicate and the search for meaning are all explored in an overload of verbosity that never quite escapes the film's theatrical origins. Indeed, the end result is an uneven mixture of riveting drama and wratched-up self-indulgence.
Ostensibly taking place on one long night in one of those soulless, bleach-white LA condos, the drama revolves around Eddie (Penn), a casting director vaguely coming to the conclusion that something is awry in his life. Compounding his insecurities are his on-off relationship with high flyer Darlene (Wright Penn, as good as ever), his coke addiction and his volatile relationship with three Hollywood sleazeballs: business partner Mickey (Spacey) who has taken refuge in Mickey's gaff and is having an affair with Darlene; actor (and borderline brute) Phil (Palminteri) and smooth Tinseltown shyster Artie (Shandling). Little actually happens - Artie gives the guys a teenage drifter, Donna (Anna Paquin, superb), as a "care package", Ryan makes a brief mark as a stripper who is the conduit for disaster. And that's it. What we get instead is talk. Lorryloads of it.
Admittedly much of the hyper-real dialogue is funny and sharp - "If your manner of speech is any indication of the workings of your mind, then it's a wonder you can even tie your shoes" - yet what starts out as engaging and amusing begins to grate, the repetition of scenes adding little to any overall point. To get round the stagebound feel, Drazan attempts a fluid camera style that enlivens the action, but what really grabs the attention is the cast: Spacey (on autopilot) adds another smug lizard to his resume and Penn excels as a livewire who may be fizzing out. Yet, if the film finds a point of identification, it is in Paquin's teen drifter who, among the plethora of screw-ups, is infinitely more centred than any of the "adults" who surround her.
The story has something to say, but we spend so much time waiting for all involved to say it that what should be gripping and turbulent becomes arduous. The performances are all terrific, but this could have been over, done with, and infinitely more satisfying with a running time of less than an hour; Hurlyburly inadvertently makes a great case for the need for high quality TV.