January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

In Hurlyburly, the men are foulmouthed, twitchy, angry, vulgar, shallow, self-absorbed, woman-hating, and nose-deep in drugs and alcohol. The women are abused, unhappy, distracted, distrustful, and disheveled. The setting is Hollywood. And the time, according to the opening title, is ”a little while ago” — in other words, a 1980s-ish cocaine-fueled era recent enough to justify the inclusion of the frequent cell phone conversations with which director Anthony Drazan (Zebrahead) and screenwriter David Rabe update Rabe’s attention-getting 1984 play. Hurlyburly is supposedly about the crummy depths to which men and women can sink in the course of climbing in a city that craves heights — creative, sexual, financial, chemical. But it’s also about the highs of being an actor: This ensemble piece is a tedious circus of apoplectic speeches and explosive thespian snit fits — the fits, in the end, being more to the point than the existential condition they are meant to describe.

In other words, I don’t buy the whole men-boffing-women/men-screwing-each-other-in-Heartless-Hollywood premise as put forth by Rabe and Drazan. (The director overstresses the mood with jarring camera activity that bounces off a lot of reflective surfaces.) But I do buy that actors will sell their grandmothers for the opportunity to growl, mumble, bark, and snarl hot lines of dialogue like ”Well, f— her, the whore.”

The howling ensemble is led by Sean Penn, who rages sostrenuously, we fear for his blood pressure; everything beautifully controlled in his Thin Red Line performance is here blown wild. Others baying at the L.A. moon include Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling, little Anna Paquin from The Piano, all grown up, and a happy-to-be-slutty Meg Ryan. Amid such actorly foaming, then, Kevin Spacey’s coolly modulated coldness and the relative elegance of Robin Wright Penn stand out. Their characters are no less despicable, but they win points for not letting everything hang out, no matter what helter-skelter Hurlyburly throws their way. C-

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