Warren Beatty used to be somebody. With his dare-me grin and his glib populist opinions, he made implausible movies happen. Whether by his own charismatic will or through deeper engagements as a writer, producer, and/or director, he managed to deliver the media-savvy ironies of Bonnie and Clyde, the paranoia of The Parallax View, the reverent commie cant of Reds, and the edgy farce of Shampoo. This last was a 1975 satire of sex and politics, and though the late Hal Ashby directed Shampoo, it was a genuine Beatty masterpiece. Set at the time of the 1968 election that would crown Richard Nixon as president, Shampoo told the tale of a hairdresser (Beatty) so caught up in beautifying and bedding women that he doesn't realize his country is sinking into an ethical slumber.
Today, with another sullied president caught compromising himself (and the nation), Beatty is attempting to recreate a similar magic, this time both writing and directing a film called Bulworth. The story of a suicidal WASP senator who both loses and changes his mind in one break-out, breakdown weekend, this movie puts the match of farce to the fire of political outrage. To stop this flash metaphor before it burns us all, let's just say that Bulworth smolders and sparks, but isn't ultimately as incendiary as Beatty might want it to be.
At the outset, Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty) sits in his D.C. office, neither eating nor sleeping. He alternately channel surfs and watches his embarrassing new campaign ads, in which he has given up his longstanding liberal agenda for some creepy reactionary vote-mongering. Affirmative action? Who needs it! Bulworth has sold his soul and he knows it. So he arranges to have himself shot.
Bulworth really kicks in once the senator abandons all hope, beginning to liberate his tongue and his conscience in turn. He tells a South Central congregation that liberals pay them lip service because they don't contribute to campaigns; he tells a roomful of Jewish entertainment bigwigs that he'll always listen to their wallets, even though they make lousy movies. He begins to fall in with black folks and by some clumsy cultural osmosis starts to rap. Dr. Dre has nothing to fear from Bulworth, but what the sleepless senator is saying--about hypocrisy and loss of spirit--bears notice.
Bulworth is blessed with this contrary attitude; it's a far more angry movie than either Wag the Dog or Primary Colors in this year's rare trilogy of political satires. And Bulworth, who changes his mind about dying, comes to like the truth-telling. Soon he is happily offending everyone in earshot, gaining a new pride in his life at the same time as he risks losing it. Sometimes, though, Beatty's rants have to muscle their way through noisy crowd scenes, or--worse yet--they stop the movie's momentum cold for a few minutes of preaching.
This is a shame because the film is otherwise winningly screwball, what with Halle Berry on hand as a comely follower who could be either a love interest, a fellow farceuse, or a potential killer. Her most romantic moment is a breathless tirade against the loss of economic opportunity in the inner city, delivered to Bulworth from within kissing range. Berry, however, is poorly defined as a character. She's not so much window dressing as ideological dressing; she's here to give the movie a moral center and not much else.
This makes Bulworth intriguing but mixed-up, for everyone else around Berry and Beatty is doing straight comedy. Blustery aides, incensed citizens, cute grannies, bantering kids--they're familiar types, neatly orchestrated into a fine comedy. Yet Beatty sometimes seems peripheral to the shenanigans going on around him; in one scene, Bulworth romps inconspicuously in homeboy garb while the extended family he's staying with wears every possible form of black-is-beautiful apparel since about 1970, from church dresses and hats through dashikis, buppie suspenders, and FUBU athletic gear.
Though the film can seem as tonally schizophrenic as its confused hero, I hate to say there's a problem with Bulworth; its audacity alone deserves notice. But Beatty, ever the cynical idealist, may be misreading his audience. Are we ready to pay attention to what's being said, when what's being done is more colorful, wacky--and superficial? Great as Shampoo is, the first time I saw it the women behind me spent the whole movie chatting about the hairdos on screen. Now that Warren Beatty is back in form again, it would be a shame if people heard only half of what he has to say.
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