Friday May 15, 1998
Like Newt Gingrich singing "My Yiddishe Mama" or Hulk Hogan doing needlepoint, the sight of Warren Beatty rapping is not on the top of most people's must-see list. Will "Bulworth" change their minds? That's an easier question to ask than to answer.
A chaotic but somehow endearing mishmash, "Bulworth" is an amusing, self-consciously outrageous attempt at a shotgun marriage between knockabout comedy and serious political commentary. Produced, directed, co-written and starring Beatty, it's a lively, undisciplined one-of-a-kind vanity project from a smart and politically savvy movie star used to getting his own way.
Those looking for confirmation of how close Hollywood and Washington have become will notice how at home Beatty is as the incumbent California Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth seen in the campaign spots that start the film. Handsome, charismatic, with his jacket slung over his shoulder and slogans like "I believe in a hand up, not a hand out" on his lips, Beatty's Bulworth could probably parachute into the current California gubernatorial race and end up on top.
The Bulworth we actually meet, however, is not this paragon of confidence. Rather it's an exhausted-looking man in the middle of a nervous breakdown, someone whose personal life has degenerated into a charade and whose professional work has become a series of cave-ins to wealthy special interests.
So disgusted is Bulworth with himself that he acquires large amounts of life insurance from a corrupt lobbyist (Paul Sorvino) and contacts a man known only as Vinnie (Richard Sarafian) for what is euphemistically called "a weekend research project." Sick of it all, Bulworth has gone and hired someone to take his life.
Marking time back in Los Angeles, making his usual "we stand at the doorstep of a new millennium" campaign speech to a black audience at the First A.M.E. church, Bulworth is suddenly stricken, like Jim Carrey in "Liar, Lair" with the compulsion to tell the truth.
After outraging his African American supporters by blandly announcing that their community will never be treated seriously by politicians unless they either vote or contribute more money, Bulworth next appears at a fund-raiser composed mainly of wealthy Jews in show business, where he asks how such smart people can turn out so many stupid motion pictures.
Being Peck's naughty but honest boy turns out to be a balm to Bulworth's soul, and he starts to reconsider whether life is worth living after all. The fact that the stunning Nina (Halle Berry) has unaccountably attached herself to Bulworth after his A.M.E. speech doesn't hurt the senator's will to live either.
The reason "Bulworth" is more engaging than expected is Beatty's good-humored willingness to look completely silly. Whether it's engaging in classic pratfalls like walking into poles and slipping into pools or wandering through scenes in faux-rapper outfits complete with wool cap and baggy shorts, the actor reveals a gift for slapstick and self-parody that has not always been apparent.
The heart of this willingness to play the fool is the new Bulworth's determination to speak as much as possible in amusing rap-type rhymes, something that seriously disconcerts the senator's all-business staff, played by Oliver Platt, Jack Warden and Joshua Malina.
What gives "Bulworth" its unique character is that all this silliness is periodically punctuated by cogent, carefully thought-out mini-manifestos about such serious issues as the state of African American leadership, why health care costs so much and how those in power have always tried to drive a wedge between the poor of all races.
It is surprising to hear commentary like this in any kind of Hollywood picture, let alone a comedy. But even though Beatty makes sure these sound bites are delivered in a glib, antic manner engineered to be audience-friendly, their presence is too awkward to mix well with the slapstick. The audacity of the concept carries things along for a while, but, as "Bulworth's" peculiar ending points up, it is far from a seamless weld.
What is most fascinating about "Bulworth" (co-written by Jeremy Pikser) is how personal a film this is, how many Beatty-specific agendas it covers, from reinventing himself (via use of a rap soundtrack and a co-star like Berry) for a younger audience to expressing sincerely held political frustrations. Imagine Barbra Streisand interrupting "Yentl" for some pithy remarks about the N.R.A. and you'll get some idea of what's going on here.
It is also fascinating to see how cannily Beatty covers all his bases. Do you think Berry is too young to be a romantic interest? Bulworth makes sure to say the same thing himself. And anyone troubled that a film that says more than most about the plight of the black underclass still has to resort to urban stereotypes to get laughs will be brought up short by the presence of veteran writer-activist Amiri Baraka as a shaman-type figure.
Frequently awkward, peppered with moments that make you shake your head, "Bulworth's" singular nature makes it a film that can't be shrugged off. If Beatty, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts and others of their stature got together and set up a Big Star Sundance, this could be the opening night film.
Bulworth, 1998. R for pervasive strong language and some drug content. A Warren Beatty Film, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Warren Beatty. Producers Warren Beatty, Pieter Jan Brugge. Screenplay by Warren Beatty & Jeremy Pikser, based on story by Warren Beatty. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Editor Robert C. Jones, Billy Weber. Costumes Milena Canonero. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Dean Tavoularis. Art director William F. O'Brien. Set decorator Rick Simpson. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. Warren Beatty as Jay Bulworth. Halle Berry as Nina. Don Cheadle as L.D.. Oliver Platt as Dennis Murphy. Paul Sorvino as Graham Crockett.