107 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, May 22, 1998
Co-written & directed by Warren Beatty
Starring Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Christine Baranski & Paul Sorvino
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 15%|
LETTERBOX: COULDN'T HURT
More about big personalities than big photography. Will play very well on video.
Suicidal senator goes ghetto in daring political satire
With Warren Beatty, you can never be sure what you're going to get. In some films, like "Bugsy," he is positively inspired. Other times...well, let's just say "Ishtar" and leave it at that.
But one thing is certain: Warren Beatty films turn entirely on Warren Beatty's performance -- and never more so than in "Bulworth," which he co-wrote and directed as well as starring as the title character, a cracked rogue politician.
"Bulworth" is the kind of tight-rope act that could have gone wrong in a big way. Beatty plays a two-faced, career U.S. senator who succumbs an avalanche of flagrant straightforwardness when he thinks he's about to die. He also starts rapping to his Compton constituents, freaking black chicks at dance clubs and stabbing his big business contributors in the back.
With plot developments and politically incorrect dialogue that border on impudence -- "If you don't put down that malt liquor and chicken wings, you're never gonna get rid of somebody like me," he tells a black church congregation -- "Bulworth" pushes the envelope for 107 minutes.
But it's constantly precarious footing is part it's appeal. In this wicked, high risk farce Beatty staggers around in social commentary like a happy-go-lucky drunk, tripping often but never quite falling down. He positively shines with dumb luck.
Senator Jay Bulworth is unleashed Id, a corrupt Los Angeles politico in the last week of a tough re-election bid who has psychological breakdown after too many lies and too many sleepless nights on the campaign trail.
He decides to do himself in, but he's a coward so he hires a hit man rather than get his hands dirty with his own suicide. Then he finds himself strangely liberated -- nothing he says or does matters, he reasons, he'll be dead in a matter of hours, so why not be honest?
So he starts spouting off at the mouth, leveling insultingly with blacks in South Central and Jews at a Hollywood fund-raiser, and sending his nonplused campaign strategist (Oliver Platt) into frantic spin control.
Bulworth takes up with a trio of ghetto girls, lead by Halle Berry, adopts a gansta wardrobe and starts rapping -- all the time. He raps in interviews, he raps in debates. It's clear the man has snapped, and of course, the people love it.
Bulworth's street cred is dubious (and so is Beatty's). He looks like a fool decked out in ghetto punk attire, and the rapping shtick gets old in a big hurry. Beatty, the screenwriter, also insults our intelligence somewhat by tossing in a wise, philosophical homeless guy ("The Spirit Bum," I wrote in my notes) who turns up at the end of each act to wax poetic, just to make sure everyone gets the point.
These weaker elements betray the fact that Beatty, the director, has no idea how close his film comes to unraveling.
But every time the balderdash threatens to overwhelm the picture, Beatty turns down the volume, and the film returns to its funny and insightful core element -- Bulworth's rampaging conscience.
"Bulworth" may not clock as many laughs as a pure political satire like "Wag the Dog," but it also offers something to more to chew on. It's a comedy with a truly thought-provoking message, and thankfully Beatty knows how to make his point without being insufferably preachy about it.