The Wars Within

At two hours and 45 minutes, The Thin Red Line gives ample evidence of suffering all manner of cuts, if not having been simply hacked into its final shape. But this violence only adds to the movie's brave, strange, eroded nobility. As mystical as it is gritty, as despairing as it is detached, Malick's study of men in battle materializes in our midst almost exactly a century after Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage— an exercise in 19th-century transcendentalism, weirdly serene in the face of horror.

More grueling than anything in The Thin Red Line, Hurlyburly is another spectacle of men together doing bad things— if not an argument for war. Indeed, the only reason not to ship the guys played by Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, and Garry Shandling to Guadalcanal would be to keep them out of your foxhole.

Directed by Anthony Drazan from David Rabe's mid-'80s ensemble drama of Hollywood hacks coking up and getting down, Hurlyburlyis a raging torrent of misogynist self-pity— mostly staged in the unaccountably beautiful pad shared by manic Penn and fastidiously suave Spacey. As the most conflicted of the group, Penn gives a flamboyant, lurching performance— rivaled for stridence by the Method conundrum of Palminteri's badly-acted impersonation of a bad actor. (Palminteri's scenes with the slightly more skillful Meg Ryan, playing an up-for-anything tart, have the behavioral fascination of a community college acting class.)

Spirited campaign: Penn and his men in the enigmatic Thin Red Line
Merie W. Wallace
Spirited campaign: Penn and his men in the enigmatic Thin Red Line

Details

The Thin Red Line
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
From the novel by James Jones
A 20th Century Fox release
At the Ziegfeld

Hurlyburly
Directed by Anthony Drazan
Written by David Rabe from his play
A Fine Line Features release
Opens December 25

A Civil Action
Written and directed by Steven Zaillian from the book by Jonathan Harr
A Touchstone- Paramount release
Opens December 25

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Given that these characters are even more delusional than the movies they make, Rabe's dialogue is not without its mordant zing. "I am my own biggest distraction," Penn complains to his love object (an eloquently inarticulate Robin Wright Penn). Not so. Drazan's heavy-handed direction and clumsy camera-placement cuts the performers too much slack, then competes with their antics for attention.

John Travolta conveys more authority in a single scene as a meat-faced general in The Thin Red Linethan he does as a bionic, Porsche- driving personal-injury attorney in the whole overblown legal drama that is Steven Zaillian's A Civil Action. Adapted from Jonathan Harr's page-turner, a true story of industrial pollution and corporate chicanery, A Civil Actionis a slick, shameless job that takes way too long to make its point (namely, we need the EPA).

There's a vaguely Clintonian feel to the war between Travolta's cocksure, crypto-Democrat ambulance chaser and Robert Duvall's eccentric, if Republican-respectable, Harvard law prof. The chuckling Duvall is an even more opportunistic con man than Travolta— as the better actor, he deserves to win the case. Like Schindler's List, which Zaillian scripted, A Civil Action concerns a cynic's redemption. But it's a transformation that the movie can't dramatize. Travolta's part might just have well been given to Sylvester Stallone.

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