Directed by Warren Beatty. Starring Warren Beatty, Halle Barry, Oliver Platt, Jack Warden, Christine Baranski, Paul Sorvino, Richard Sarafian, Don Cheadle, Isaiah Washington, Amiri Baraka, Sean Astin, Laurie Metcalf. (1998, R, 108 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 22, 1998
Smart, funny, and even a little bit dangerous, Warren Beatty's new film Bulworth is an all-out attack on mediocrity, no matter its address -- Hollywood, Washington, or whatever street you perchance call home. Beatty's unwilling to accept mediocrity in the body politic and he's unwilling to accept it for himself as an artist. Thus he has created this political satire that's as fresh and exhilarating as anything we've seen come out of Hollywood in quite some time, and certainly more invigorating than anything he himself has produced as of late (see Dick Tracy and Love Affair for examples). Even more challenging, Bulworth treads a delicate line between political consciousness-tweaking and goofball slapstick so that you're never 100 percent certain whether you're seeing a farce with surprisingly sharp teeth or a drama featuring a clown protagonist. That uncertainty is just one of the ways Bulworth challenges the predictability of the status quo. As the film begins, we discover that incumbent Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty) of California seems to have come unglued. Perhaps he's just plain sick of all the lying and manipulation and currying of favors that it takes to keep the wheels of government rolling. Maybe he's sick of the rubber-chicken circuit and the bland political platitudes he hears coming from his mouth and the family who's only present in his life for photo ops and other state occasions. Or maybe it's just that life-and-death decisions shouldn't be made when one is feeling suicidal. But whatever it is, it's got a hold of him bad. So on the eve of the 1996 primaries, Bulworth discreetly arranges to have himself assassinated. Ironically, the knowledge of his pending demise proves incredibly liberating and the new freedom spurs him to start speaking his mind. Then, after a night of low-down partying in Compton, Bulworth is not only speaking his mind, but he now speaks it in pithy rapper's rhymes. By the time pretty Nina (Barry) catches his eye, he's starting to have so much fun with his new unfettered way of thinking and speaking that he wants to call off the assassination… if only he knew how. It could be said that Bulworth's targets are mostly safe and audience-friendly institutions: the insurance industry, health care, and the empty promises of the Democratic party. But as Bulworth, Beatty nevertheless manages to slip in a surprising number of pointed zingers. Beatty is also unafraid here to look his age (more apparent as the movie progresses and the character's lack of sleep and intake of drugs begin to exert their toll) and appear clumsily idiotic as an over-the-hill, white-boy rapper decked out in baggy shorts and woolen cap. None of this is status quo for a Hollywood movie. Neither is the May-December interracial subplot (which Bulworth himself also manages to comment on before we have a chance to roll our eyes at this movie contrivance). With a good deal of the film's action taking place in the Compton ghetto, the film might also be faulted for its seeming reliance on black urban stereotypes, but really, the whole movie uses the shorthand of stereotypes -- be they smarmy insurance agents, fawning press flacks, overweening Jews, and so on. Assisting Beatty in this project is a spectacular group of actors. Oliver Platt's wry turn as the senator's assistant is a true delight in itself, and the appearance of activist/playwright/poet Amiri Baraka as a roving street shaman is another unexpected pleasure. Only Halle Barry remains somewhat inscrutable as a character, which is just about the only misstep of the movie. Like its namesake, Bulworth the movie will not go gentle into the good night.