(director/writer: Warren Beatty; screenwriters: Jeremy Pikser/based on a story by Beatty; cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro; editor: Robert C. Jones; cast: Warren Beatty (Sen. Jay Bulworth), Halle Berry (Nina), Oliver Platt (Bulworth’s campaign manager), Don Cheadle (drug dealer, L.D.), Paul Sorvino (head of an insurance corp., Graham Crockett), Jack Warden (Eddie Davers), Christine Baranski (Senator Bulworth’s wife), Amiri Baraka (homeless man); Runtime: 108; Twentieth Century Fox; 1998)
“Everyone in the film is a cardboard prop for Beatty to lay it into them with his political clichés.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A satirical film, noted for Warren Beatty trying to talk the black man’s rap to get across his political message — which is that there’s something wrong in politics that corrupts everyone in it. He plays a self-destructing liberal Democrat, California Senator Bulworth (pretty close to bullshit), who is running for re-election in 1996 and is unhappy with the phony he has become. To solve that problem, he hires a hit man to kill him. He also takes out a 10 million dollar life insurance policy for his teenage daughter’s benefit with an insurance representative who is influencing his vote on some impending insurance legislation.
But something happens to Bulworth along the way to a South Central L.A. black church, where he decides to tell the truth. Maybe Bulworth does this because he feels relieved that he’s going to die soon. Anyway, he starts chastising the congregation for following the guilty O. J. Simpson and not fighting for the real needs of the community, such as the failure of inner-city schools and developing local businesses and filling the need for black leaders to replace those who got killed in the ’60s and ’70s; and, he blames himself and all politicians for taking the easy money the corporations give to make sure their side is always taken care of. Tossing aside a prepared speech about the country that starts off saying, “We stand on the doorstep of a new millennium… .” Instead, Bulworth tells the black congregation that the government doesn’t care about them because they don’t contribute enough money to re-election campaigns. Beatty believes that is the problem with the country, the great divide between the haves-and-the have-nots must be resolved, and that the politicians will always support those who contribute to them and ignore those who have no power unless there is some kind of election reform.
Bulworth encounters a sexy black woman in the church, Nina (Halle ), who re-invigorates him, reminding him how he once thought of himself as a liberal Democrat who cared about the truth but who has now lost the way and seems the same as the Republicans. She takes him to a hip-hop club and he sheds his whiteness in favor of the black man’s rap which he will ridiculously imitate for the remainder of the campaign, to the initial fright of his campaign staff led by Oliver Platt. Platt’s role is of a stereotypical flunky. No new acting ground is broken here, as the main comedy of the film comes about as the sleazy Pratt adapts to any view that keeps him in power.
The other key staff member is his veteran campaign advisor, Jack Warden, who plays his minor role low-key, by trying to go with his successful meal ticket as far it could take him.
Invited to speak before a largely Jewish crowd of supporters in the entertainment field, he tells them they make crappy films and are only interested in making money. At a business luncheon he insults the big contributors to his campaign such as Paul Sorvino, who is head of an insurance corporation that gives him campaign money and money under the table to block an insurance bill that would help the indigent.
Bulworth leaves Nina’s house and goes strolling in the “hood” and ends up trying to be a combo of Jerry Lewis and James Cagney in one acting performance, helping some drug dealing boys in the street from getting beat on by a racist cop. This is an awkwardly embarrassing scene, that was more embarrassing than funny to watch Beatty try to ingratiate himself this way to his black brothers. He reminded me of the guilt-ridden white liberals in the ’60s who invited the Black Panthers into their wealthy homes and thought they were so chic.
Bulworth also decides he is beginning to have some fun, or maybe it’s the weed and coke that got to him, as he tries to get a hold of the hit man and call off the job. The most unbelievable scene in the film–a scene that was just too gooey to take without asking what Beatty was thinking of–was the conversion of the local drug dealer (Cheadle) to the cause of the community after hearing one of Beatty’s speeches on TV. Even Frank Capra wasn’t that schmaltzy.
Meanwhile CNN is interviewing him and C-Span is following him around in a truck, not understanding where he is going with this new image change. The story gets too ridiculous at this point to even be satirical or reasonably credible, it is just bad film-making; but, it does try in its unclear and scrambled way to blame the media and the rich people who control it, for not being risk takers and offering fresh arguments into the political fray. In his contemptuous style (which hides a self-righteous anger), he sounds more preachy than a Sidney Lumet does in directing Network. He seems to have retained an old liberal paternalistic style towards blacks from back in the days of the ’60s and ’70s.
Amiri Baraka (poet & playwright), supposedly a voice of consciousness, plays a homeless sage who keeps popping up from scene-to-scene, uttering this heavy stream of consciousness rap, “We need no more ghosts, we need a spirit.”
The fault of the film is that Beatty can’t gracefully pull off what he is trying to accomplish without appearing to be smug about it, like he’s the white man who knows best what to do and that anything he does is super cool because he really cares about the blacks and the poor (sic!). His naive solution for race problems is to have the races fornicate together and have a mixed racial country.
Everyone in the film is a cardboard prop for Beatty to lay it into them with his political clichés.
Just when I thought Wag the Dog was one of the stupidest political comedies I ever saw along comes this sophomoric venture. It’s a film that out wags the dog’s tail in prattle unable to have the demented Bulworth say what he would do when elected, except what is implied– that the people will trust him because he’s so hip. There was a smugness that made its childish political voice seem more annoying than it should be, even taking away any enjoyment that might have been derived from its comic efforts. This is just a bad film that tried to say something about social injustice, the class differences between the rich and the poor, the unfair loss of welfare programs, the inhibiting cost of health insurance that is falsely being blamed on the government when it is the fault of insurance companies why the rates are so high, the hypocrisies of the Gulf War, and the failure of the media to be more responsive in covering all the political corruption. Beatty is just not the filmmaker I would want telling my side of the story. He has a way of glossing over his once real candidate’s foibles, Bobby Kennedy and Gary Hart, while pretending to have answers that he doesn’t have or, at least, doesn’t present them that well in the film. Beatty sounds no different or trustworthy than the politicians he pokes fun at, Clinton and Dole. And, I don’t mean that as a compliment.
REVIEWED ON 9/6/99 GRADE: D