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Last week, producer-director-actor Robert Redford blew $75 million on the bloated, narcissistic, toothachingly trite The Horse Whisperer. This week, Warren Beatty, Redford’s contemporary, ups the creative ante by co-producing, directing, co-scripting, and playing the title role in Bulworth, a dark, raucous political satire. Spending less that half of Redford’s budget, Beatty has made a riskier, more ambitious movie. But, like the rap music that floods its soundtrack, Bulworth is more effective as social commentary than as art.
Jay Bulworth is a burnt-out Democratic senator running for re-election in the 1996 California primary. A disenchanted, womanizing boozer on the verge of physical and emotional collapse, he cuts a deal with an insurance lobbyist in exchange for a $10 million policy to benefit his daughter, then engages a hit man to assassinate him. With nothing left to lose, Bulworth startles crowds on his final round of Los Angeles campaign speeches by outspokenly addressing thorny issues that other candidates evade: race, class, and corporate and media corruption of our political system. His candor rouses the benumbed electorate and involves him with Nina (Halle Berry), the smart, self-possessed daughter of ’60s black activists. His will to live unexpectedly restored, Bulworth attempts to call off the hit man but is unable to make contact with him. On election eve, he’s forced to go underground to save his life.
Billed as a “tragic-farce,” Bulworth is unreconstructed Kennedy liberal Beatty’s bitter riposte to Clinton’s sellout of the Democratic Party’s progressive traditions. In its opening scene, we’re shown a series of Bulworth’s TV spots that kicks off with typical Slick Willie rhetoric (“We stand on the doorstep of a new millennium”) then dissolves into co-opted Contract With America reactionary agendascraven capitulation to opponents of welfare and affirmative action, and the sanctimonious embrace of “family values.” Years of parroting this neo-con Clintonian rubbish has pushed Bulworth over the edge. Ironically, the liberation he experiences by planning his own execution leads to spiritual and moral regeneration.
Beatty, who wrote the original story and collaborated on the screenplay with Jeremy Pikser, has tapped into a potent subject, and his shrewd decision to frame it as a comedy largely removes the onus of didacticism. Unlike Reds, his last political film, in which another great themeAmerican journalist John Reed’s involvement with communismdisintegrated into a cornball love story featuring a cute dog and clueless Diane Keaton making fashion statements, Bulworth is stubbornly uncompromising. But Beatty’s direction is so clumsy, and his attitudes toward race so self-congratulatory, that his outspokenness fails to make much impact.
After setting up the comedic premise of a spent politician no longer willing to utter self-serving lies, Beatty can’t quite figure out what to do with it. Bulworth’s bluntness wreaks havoc in a repetitious series of campaign appearancesat black churches, at white churches, at a Hollywood fundraiser, on a nationally televised debate. Scrambling to evade execution, he escapes to L.A.’s black ghetto, where he lamely raps his political truths in an after-hours club, finds refuge with Nina’s family, and, disguised as a black man, survives an encounter with a drug ring fronted by neighborhood kids. This adventure inspires his salvation and leads to his eventual martyrdom.
With a soundtrack blasting rap and hiphop records virtually nonstop, Bulworth is edited like a music videoa mosaic of brief takes, jump cuts, and reaction shots. Comedy requires deliberate structuring and meticulous timing for the punch lines to pay offstrategies that Beatty heedlessly ignores. Many of his jokes are lost in the hyperkinetic cutting, registering a few beats too late to garner laughs. (Tellingly, the film’s funniest sequence, in which two of Bulworth’s frustrated aides sniff cocaine, is also its least frenetically edited.) Beatty seems to have worked over the material so long that he’s ended up amusing himself and forgetting the needs of his audience. Perhaps he would have been wiser to entrust the director’s chair to someone with a more detached perspective, as he did when he hired Hal Ashby to helm Shampoo, the sexy 1975 political comedy-drama that he produced and co-scripted with Robert Towne.
Formally, Bulworth is surprisingly rough-hewn, especially considering that it was photographed by Vittorio Storaro and designed by Dean Tavoularis, whose credits together include Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart. Obviously, the visual splendors they created in those productions would not be appropriate for Bulworth, but the film’s cramped, caliginous images are unnecessarily alienating. The soundtrack, with overlapping and throwaway lines layered over thumping music, is even more distracting. I was unable to grasp much of the dialogue, though the source of that problem may have been the Cineplex Odeon Tenley’s presentation. At one point during the public preview I attended, the film got caught in the projector gate, requiring an unscheduled 10-minute intermission.
The film’s large acting ensemble, which includes Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Christine Baranski, Paul Sorvino, and Don Cheadle, performs its duties admirably, though few are given enough screen time to make much of an impression. Berry’s extraordinary beauty allows her to coast through an underwritten, enigmatic role that makes few demands on her acting skills. The film’s focus remains fixed on Beatty, who is uncharacteristically energetic and appears to be having the time of his life, even aping his buddy Jack Nicholson when donning a knit-cap-and-dark-glasses disguise to venture forth into the ghetto. Although he’s considerably more modest than Redford is in the latter’s current, self-mythologizing vehicle, Beatty does not entirely avoid lapses into stud-turned-homey geezer-wanking. When Berry gazes fondly at him and sighs, “You know you’re my nigger,” one can’t help recalling Vanilla Ice, not to mention Woody Allen, another sexagenarian, absurdly warning Elisabeth Shue, in Deconstructing Harry, not to fall in love with him.
Courageously intentioned but clumsily executed, Bulworth is perhaps most notable for Beatty’s finesse in enlisting the African-American establishment’s support for his project. Poet-playwright-activist Amiri Baraka appears throughout the film as a grizzled street person and chants the screenplay’s bumper-sticker envoi: “You gotta be a spirit. You can’t be no ghost.” In a recent New Yorker, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote a fawning celebrity profile of Beatty to promote the movie’s release. It’s embarrassing to witness such serious-minded people turning starry-eyed when lured by Tinseltown’s siren song. In a week when Frank Sinatra’s death edged out India’s bomb tests for the lead slot on television nightly newscasts, Beatty’s seduction of black intellectuals underscores the sobering truth that, these days, there’s no business but show business.
The situation of an unhappy man ordering a hit on his own life recurs in director Vyacheslav Krishtofovich’s A Friend of the Deceased. (It also figured in last week’s A Taste of Cherry. I’d rather not speculate on the implications of this trend.) Artfully composed, photographed, and edited, the film begins with considerable promise, then bogs down in unconvincing plot contrivances.
Set in post-Communist Kiev, a venerable, atmospheric city metastasizing into a faceless steel-and-concrete metropolis, A Friend of the Deceased examines the predicament of Anatoli (Alexandre Lazarev), a translator whose skills have become obsolete in the new cutthroat capitalist economy, a society run by entrepreneurs and mobsters. His wife Katia (Angelika Nevolina), trained as a philologist, has adapted her talents to a successful advertising career while he barely survives by giving language lessons to crass businessmen. When Anatoli learns that Katia has taken up with her boss and plans to leave him, he drunkenly confesses his troubles to an old army buddy, Dima (Eugen Pachin), who suggests that he hire a contract killer to rub out the competition. Heartsick and hopeless, Anatoli instead sends a photograph of himself to the hit man.
After unforeseen circumstances prevent the assassination from occurring at the appointed time, Anatoli has second thoughts, largely inspired by a night of sex with Vika (Tatiana Krivitska), a saucy young hooker. Informed by Dima that the contract cannot be canceled, he engages a second hit man to rub out the first. Remorsefully, he visits the dead killer’s young widow Marina (Elena Korikova) to return the man’s cash-filled wallet, a gesture that leads him deeper into Kiev’s underworld. By the film’s ambiguously optimistic fadeout, Anatoli has prevented one murder, initiated another, and instigated a bombing.
A Friend of the Deceased’s opening reels are compelling. Krishtofovich and cinematographer Vilen Kaluta austerely convey Anatoli’s alienation in a series of handsome, rigorously framed Bressonian compositions. But it collapses under the weight of Andreï Kourkov’s episodic, overwrought screenplay. When Anatoli attempts to call off the hit man, Dima implausibly explains that once an execution is ordered it cannot be stopped. (Why, one wonders, wouldn’t the hired killer be content to accept his fee without executing his mission?) An excess of subplotsAnatoli’s efforts to stop a businessman’s assassination, Vika’s abuse at the hands of her sadistic new husband, Marina’s attempts to seduce Anatolioverloads the movie, destroying its poetic, contemplative tone.
There’s a potentially touching subject at the core of A Friend of the Deceased: the plight of a man struggling to adjust to a political sea change that has replaced friendship and intellectual achievement with commerce and criminality. Afraid, perhaps, that an overt lament for the way things were might seem too retrograde, Krishtofovich has stuffed his movie with melodramatic digressions. The result is interesting to watch but impossible to believe. CP