"Bulworth" is something of a mess. But it is a Good Mess. It is the first summer film that I saw on my return from the Cannes Film Festival --and I feel pretty good about it. I wish it had been selected for Cannes instead some other US movies. Had this been the case, I guess that "Bulworth"'s strong, idiomatic hip-hop dialogue, its African-American nature, its in-references, would have puzzled the public. Yet its liberalism and reformism would have found a receptive audience among the French and other nationals who are much more militant than the Americans.
For Warren Beatty it's a strong comeback after the insipid, flat fiasco of 1994's "Love Affair," a re-remake of two earlier movies --the first one excellent, the second good. In version 3, Beatty had co-written, produced it and sort of starred, along with wife Annette Bening. In "Bulworth" he is the movie by his presence, plus co-producing, co-scripting, as well as solo directing -- the latter for the third time, following his "Reds" and "Dick Tracy."
Beatty directs himself as incumbent California Senator Jay Bulworth, a Democrat, whom we meet in the last three days of the 1996 primaries. In his Washington office, surrounded by photographs of 1960s liberal icons JB keeps clicking his remote control, watching on the monitor an endless parade of his campaign footage that endlessly uses his inane slogan "We stand at the doorstep of a new millennium." The man hasn't slept or eaten in days. In a near-catatonic state of depression, he takes stock of his sorry condition, his abuses of power and betrayals of a political past that once was rife with post-New Deal, Kennedyite ideals. Like too many others, he's sold his soul to the company store.
The opening sequences are brilliant, hard acts to follow. Additional deft strokes show Jay's entourage, make us aware of his corruption. Promising a lobbyist for the insurance industry his help in defeating a plan that would provide coverage for the have-nots, Jay extracts a ten million dollar freebie, a life insurance to be paid to his (unseen throughout the film) daughter. With a sleazy middleman, Bulworth arranges for a contract -- on his own life. A breakdown can't go any further. It may seem unbelievable but it is fascinating.
Landing in California, acting oddly from alcohol and his breakdown, Bulworth is whisked off to a black church of South Central Los Angeles, where things get curiouser and curiouser for an audience who couldn't guess in a million years that the Senator's decision to end it all has freed him to --in 60s parlance -- "tell it like it is." And does he tell them! Throwing away his speech, with total honesty, he scolds (with some affection) the African-Americans about their shortcomings then denounces (with no affection) the white Establishment that keeps no promises and does nothing for a minority that cannot contribute millions to politicians.
Panicked, his chief-of-staff (Oliver Platt) throws a fire alarm. All rush out. Somehow Nina, a gorgeous young woman (Halle Berry) and her two perky female friends get into Jay's stretch limo, along with the Senator's men and a videographer from CNN. They all find their way to a Beverly Hills reception by showbiz personalities whom the Senator shocks by continuing his stream of criticisms and unpleasant verities. The next stop is an all-black, all-night disco, with gang-like figures and much snorting of white stuff. Jay carouses, dances non-stop with Nina, boozes, and, surprise! discovers a new joie-de-vivre.
At dawn, this entourage moves to a fund-raiser at the Beverly Wilshire, where the unkempt Jay in a wine-stained shirt, goes now on a veritable rampage of denunciations. He stupefies the audience with a merciless harangue, magically delivered in rhyming rap-style. It's unbelievable but also powerful and funny. While, in spite of the abundance of the f and the m-f words this is no genuine protest rap, it serves its purpose, is entirely comprehensible to white ears, and adds to the many outrageously comic elements of the movie. From now on, it will be the Senator's main mode of communicating. His transformation gets increasingly weird, to the point of his dressing like a homeboy. Valiantly, Beatty keeps up his specialty, found in many of his films no matter what the role, that is, a self-mocking goofiness through thick and thin, here even as, with his new taste for life, Jay now frantically tries to rescind the contract on himself.Complications and episodes pile up.
Beatty, always a card-carrying, liberal activist among the Hollywoodians, but unlike most of them, semper fidelis, gives his all to his role in "Bulworth." His heart is in the right place, his old pretty-boyishness (in spite of the tiniest eyes this side of Norma Shearer and Dianne Wiest) has given way to his uncamouflaged 61 years. The real Beatty may have a high I.Q. but most of his screen personae have looked dim to me. In "Bulworth" this works in his favor, since I share with many the impression that too many politicos are more canny than brainy.
Jay is in a state of divine madness. Almost infectious is his relish in exposing the infinite ambitions and corrupting mega-powers of corporate America and multi-national conglomerates that buy and sell politicians. His denunciations of the puppets in government are vibrant. Even though his targets do not include everyone, viewers probably sense that the accusations cover untold numbers of office-holders, from petty officials to ward heelers (who are not healers) on up.
With the focus so persistently on Bulworth, the very able supporting cast (meaning everyone else), hardly ever goes beyond sketchiness. In context this would be no filmic sin, except that a surplus of directions taken and characters shown, some key roles -- like Nina's-- remain hazy. There are needless red herrings too. The finale is strictly from hunger.
Among the in-jokes popping up is writer Amiri Baraka ( ne LeRoi Jones) as a presumably homeless old fellow who, in indistinct ways, plays soothsayer, chorus or cheerleader to Bulworth. He could have been skipped. But the contract-killer device is no gimmick, since it gives Jay his freedom of thought and of speech. Coincidentally, the mysterious hired assassin and a major change of mind were the engine of Vyacheslav Krishtofovich's fine Ukrainian movie "A Friend of the Deceased" (1997), very recently released in the U.S.
Beatty's decision to use literally and symbolically Black America as his main leitmotif is a strong, clever focus, but here comes the major rub. In his too-quick immersion into black culture, Jay shows us a very real subculture that has life and soul (good), but also an under-culture (bad) of drug-dealing, gun-toting, profanity-prone adults as well as kids. Unwittingly and unconsciously -- I'm sure, -- and probably because the scriptwriters got carried away and were unable to have a tighter structure that would consider all the trees in the woods, Beatty and Pisker demean the millions of neglected, minority Americans who, against the odds, try to live decent lives.
If you haven't guessed by now, "Bulworth" is a postmodern (whatever that means), hip-hop variant of Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or "Meet John Doe." Although basically as sentimental and unlikely as those movies, its savage truths make of it a daring, fresh political work more than a fantasy.
P.S. Some statistics. Beatty, in 37 years of movies, has been in some two dozen films, an average of 0.64 per annum. In an earlier generation, Gregory Peck, in 49 years, was in 59 movies, a rate of 0.83 per annum. Earlier yet, in the keep-churning-them-out studio age, in 37 years (like Beatty), Clark Gable made about 75 films, an annual rate of 2.02.
" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)
Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at edwinjahiel.com