Alleva, Richard, Commonweal
As I write this, Warren Beatty's Bulworth is receiving rave reviews praising its star-writer-director for his courage in telling shocking political truths to his audience. In fact, just as his hero, Senator Jay Bulworth, must first launch himself into a state of frenzy through sleeplessness and self-starvation before dating to denounce big business, so Beatty, some reviewers have suggested, displays a divine madness in making a movie so brazenly political, so unabashedly left-wing.
Well, the movie is political and it is left-wing. But what is the nature of its daring?
The film's main plot device is a not-so-golden oldie that served countless B-movies. The despondent hero, disgusted with himself for betraying his earlier idealism, takes a contract out on his own life so that his family can collect the insurance. Then he undergoes a change of heart and must duck the hired killer (the very same situation of a new Russian movie, A Friend of the Deceased) all the while hanging on to the political courage he found when he had given up on life. Of course, this device is nothing but a springboard for the film's real content: The nature of Senator Bulworth's conversion and its effect on his run for reelection. We are meant to swallow the familiar melodrama for the sake of comedy and political insight.
But as far as comedy goes, Bulworth is pretty much a one-trick pony. Over and over again, the senator says a (supposedly) outrageous thing in public, the camera cuts to some outraged faces, and we in the audience are supposed to start rolling in the aisles. For a few minutes it's a foolproof device because there are easy laughs in seeing people flabber-gasted and stuffed shirts destuffed. But this device gets old fast. In the film's first half, Bulworth's campaign manager (Oliver Platt) is the main candidate for apoplexy. I don't know how many reaction shots there are of Platt with his eyes bulging and his jaw dropping - ten?thirty?fifty? But I do know I quickly got sick of the hapless actor (not his fault really) because he understandably ran out of ways of being flummoxed.
Of course, not just people's reactions to Bulworth's outrageousness but his behavior itself is supposed to be funny. And Beatty's performance, especially in the opening scenes, is one of the better things in the movie. The actor's most abiding quality, his slit-eyed shiftiness and unease, are well employed here as he scans each crowd for his hired assassin and dives for cover every time he hears a car backfire. And he delightfully trashes his own handsomeness and polish when an unexpected question catches him with a mouth stuffed full of canapes. But in the climactic sequences, with the senator dressing as a "homeboy" and adopting rap to pound home political insights, Beatty is uneven. Sometimes he does come on with the lewd aggression of an R. Crumb hero, but at other moments he raps all too cutely, as if he knew the audience would forgive him anything just for being Warren Beatty. When Gene Wilder, in the comedy-thriller Silver Streak, disguised himself as a "homey" under Richard Pryor's tutelage, he was truly funny because he made you feel two things simultaneously: the intense ridiculousness this nervous white-collar Jewish man felt in his new duds, but also his determination to use his hysterical energy in playing this new role. Wilder's frenzied, panic-stricken "whiteness" fueled his badass blackness and the result, aided by Pryor's deadpan reactions, was hilarious. …