The deeply personal and highly ambitious Bulworth provides a great vehicle for Warren Beatty in the waning phase of his stardom. Beatty, along with a handful of his contemporaries, has etched out an impressively lengthy career on both sides of the camera. Though, to date, he has only directed four films, all four have been highly acclaimed pictures in their own right while also offering Beatty juicy starring roles. Bulworth, also co-scripted by Beatty (with Jeremy Pikser), features the star as Jay Billington Bulworth, a California senator seeking reelection in 1996, a year Beatty pegged as a benchmark in voter apathy.
Beginning with the juxtaposition of the political photos on the senator's wall with his cynically targeted, middle-class-values campaign ads, Beatty positions Bulworth as the modern bastardization of the stunted promise of 60s Democratic idealists like Robert Kennedy. In the early scenes that follow, Beatty makes a convincing case for Bulworth as the inheritor of Frank Capra's skeptical (but humanist) gaze, with the crackling dialogue of a team of great character actors: the avuncular Jack Warden, the unctuous Oliver Platt, the oily Paul Sorvino, and the hard-boiled Laurie Metcalf are but a few. Beatty baits the hook by having a self-hating, disillusioned Bulworth arrange for his own assasination (with the intended result of paying out a huge, freshly-minted insurance policy to his daughter). Liberated by the thought of impending death, Bulworth begins to speak his mind, leading to the emergence of a straight-talking Capra hero from the belly of a corrupt Capra villain. In doing so, Beatty cleverly taps into an audience of disaffected voters as much responsible for their own plight as the beltway establishment. Soon, his Bulworth is taking his newfound joie de vivre to the people (specifically, the black people) of Los Angeles while on the run from the assassin he no longer welcomes. The premise gives Beatty an opportunity to skewer a variety of targets (he even bites the Hollywood hand that feeds him) with politically incorrect comic brio, and Beatty boldly risks embarrassment by clowning in ghetto wear and rapping more like Dr. Seuss than Dr. Dre.
Unfortunately, Beatty's white liberal take on urban black America rings false, including his romance with femme fatale Halle Berry (though their first kiss is cleverly sparked by their own at-odds motivations). Her world, populated in part by brother Isaiah Washington, druglord Don Cheadle, and momma Helen Martin, never coalesces, and risks condescension by making most of its men shifty and most of its women "hos" either buffoonish or criminal. It's difficult, for example, to reconcile an out-of-nowhere politically informed monologue from Berry with her no-account criminal career. Beatty overreaches into Spike Lee and Oliver Stone territory, weaving in a one-man Greek chorus (here, an elderly black bag gentleman named Rastaman), played by poet Amiri Baraka. Rastaman not-so-subtly (and, arguably--given the plot machinations--not very helpfully) opines that the time for "ghosts" (politicians both literally and figuratively dead) is over, but the time for "spirits" (civic-minded doers) is here.
For its flaws, Bulworth is an expertly crafted picture; its failures are not due to slapdash technique. Ennio Morricone's orchestral score, counterpointed with a propulsive rap soundtrack, achieves the moodiness needed for the serious turns, and Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is masterful. Bulworth succeeds as a surprising comedic entertainment with energy to spare, but the heights for which Beatty aims also leave him plenty of room to fall.
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