Review: "Bulworth"

May 27, 1998|By JASON MYERS

Jason Myers

To the reader who has been sending me anonymous columns from arch-conservative magazines in response to my favorable review of "Primary Colors:" prepare your scissors. I am about to recommend "Bulworth."

Warren Beatty's liberatingly liberal comedy set in the black heart of the modern American political climate is so refreshingly, rudely funny that it makes "Primary Colors" seem like a valentine to Bob Dole.

Viewers have been treated to some exceptionally smart films about politics within the past few months. "Wag the Dog" was David Mamet's droll farce about the connections between Hollywood and Washington. It came out around the time a piece in "New Yorker" lamented, laughingly, the transformation of the President of the United States from solemn, serious political leader to glib, gutless entertainer.


Such a man is Jack Stanton (John Travolta), the focus of Mike Nichol's lyrical "Primary Colors."

Clinton is the model for most current satire, and he is an easy target. Even at his most austere, he tends to rely on Kennedy cliches. And the man is such an infidel that he can rarely be austere. I like Clinton. He's an intellectual, and he has charisma, both traits severely lacking in many politicians.

His centrist philosophy of governing and politicking is the kind of careful, cerebral behavior that J. Billington Bulworth (Beatty) has faded into, and he's direly depressed. The film begins with him sobbing as he watches the latest slick, streamlined "spots" (political lingo for campaign commercials) which have him promoting such bland, banal platforms as family values.

The camera moves around his office to capture photographs of leaders from the '60s, our decade most likely to evoke nostalgia. Something in the faces of King and Kennedy and various others from the era derives a sentimental sensibility in many Americans.

In "Primary Colors," Henry (Adrian Lester) tells Elisabeth Stanton (Emma Thompson) that he admires Jack (Travolta) because he has qualities that remind him of Kennedy, even though Kennedy probably was killed before he was born. Camelot is our American myth for the second half of the century, and like all myths it is difficult to explain (Kennedy was neither our best, nor most effective president, and he was a philanderer to compete with Clinton).

For whatever reasons, Bulworth (an ideal alter ego for Beatty, who always has been an ardent supporter of liberal politics) feels pangs of loss and cynicism. He has lost his faith in the Democratic party, and for a Californian senator, that's tantamount to a Catholic's doubt of Christ. We soon find him hiring someone to assassinate himself (a delicious variation on our conspiracy culture).

Since he has nothing left to lose - neither his life nor re-election - the senator begins behaving in bizarre fashion. When he addresses a black church in a very urban section of Los Angeles, he tells them they need to stop drinking malt liquor and eating fried chicken. Minutes later, his limousine is pulling through Kentucky Fried Chicken to satisfy his hunger. For all the brash humor of "Bulworth," there are some really subtle observations of politicians and their advisers.

Unfortunately, the movie also has its fair share of broadsides and blanket statements. What begins for Bulworth as self-destructive attitude becomes a re-invigorating outlook on himself and his political philosophy, and many of his answers, like all idealistic answers, are simplistic and saccharine.

There also is an unlikely romantic subplot involving the senator, married to a politically typical indifferent wife (Christine Baranski), and Nina (Halle Berry), a gorgeous ghetto-ite who inspires Bulworth. For a movie that explodes so many stereotypes, it creates some problematic platitudes of its own. When the senator takes to rapping, he homogenizes and humiliates African-American culture.

There always are going to be flaws in a film as passionate as "Bulworth." It is exciting to see Beatty this energetic. Coming a week after Robert Redford's anemic performance in "The Horse Whisperer," in which the actor indulged his glowing presence a bit too much for the first time directing himself, "Bulworth" is a regular revelation.

Having written, produced, directed and starred in scathing satire, Beatty proves to be the most audacious actor of his generation. This is not a comfortable, adult drama as his contemporaries are so handsomely producing (yeah, so his last film was the sickly "Love Affair"; "Bulworth" is more than enough to forgive him). It's exultant and exuberant; it's uneven and unfair. I loved it.

Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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