Shock to the System
Some movies have moments that are worth the price of admission alone: Robert DeNiro hanging out an automobile sunroof with a rocket launcher on his shoulder in Ronin; Greg Kinnear’s impersonation of Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets; the “Is Luke Skywalker a war criminal?” debate in Clerks; Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck’s incredibly sexy kiss in In and Out; Mulder and Scully’s near-miss kiss in The X-Files.
And now I can add to that list: Warren Beatty in baggy shorts and wraparound shades, rapping out America’s political ills in Bulworth: “One man, one vote, now is that really real? / The name of the game is let’s make a deal.”
As not a particular fan of either Beatty or rap music, I was not expecting to enjoy Bulworth, so I was delightfully surprised to find myself totally won over by the film’s sharp satire and a performance by Beatty that is both wonderfully unrestrained and remarkably self-deprecating. Written and directed by Beatty, Bulworth is not the self-indulgent lovefest I was afraid it was going to be — modestly, Beatty is even credited alphabetically, after the title and in same size typeface as the rest of the (fabulous) cast.
With mere days to go before the 1996 California primary elections, incumbent Democratic Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty) is in full-blown, midlife-crisis nervous breakdown. His marriage is a sham (his wife, who appears in only a few scenes, is played to the biting, snarky hilt by Christine Baranski) and his 17-year-old daughter wants nothing to do with him. Everyone around him, from his doctor to his chief of staff, Dennis Murphy (the always wonderful Oliver Platt, from The Imposters and A Time to Kill), is a lying, hypocritical, Washington gameplayer. His opponent has accused him of being “an old liberal wine trying to pour himself into a new conservative bottle.” All Bulworth can manage to do in the face of it all is mutter the same old canned political rhetoric. When smarmy insurance lobbyist Graham Crockett (Paul Sorvino, from Romeo + Juliet) pressures Bulworth into supporting an anti-insurance-regulation bill, Bulworth agrees to back it in exchange for $10 million in life insurance. He expects his family to be able to take advantage of the policy soon — he’s hired an assassin to kill him.
And that’s when Bulworth goes on his tear. Whether it’s the unconscious, final stage of his breakdown or a conscious decision to throw caution to the wind during what he believes are his last few days on Earth, he starts doing the one thing we demand of politicians and never get: He tells the truth. At a South Central L.A. gospel service, he throws away his prepared speech and tells his black audience that they’ll never be of any concern to politicians because they don’t contribute major campaign funds. He tells a gathering of Hollywood supporters that their films are crap. Murphy is “concerned” about his boss’s behavior. “What is this new strategy?” he asks.
Reveling in the party atmosphere and media sensation his “new strategy” is causing, he hooks up with Nina (Halle Berry) — who explains passionately to Bulworth why America has no new black leaders — and heads off to the kind of after-hours club at which the bouncer asks new arrivals to “check your weapons.” In an extraordinary scene that I keep replaying in my mind, Bulworth dances wildly, even ecstatically, with Nina to a fast, almost savage hip-hop beat. Here’s a man who’s been both a model of restraint as well as a liar and a hypocrite, probably for most of his life, and now, the audience perceives, he’s suddenly more himself, more true, writhing with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter, than he ever has been before. Bulworth seems to realize this as well. He decides to call off the hit on himself, but — plot complication! — he can’t get in touch with his only connection to the assassin.
Beatty has peopled Bulworth with other commanding characters, including a strange old bum who wanders through the movie, urging Bulworth to be “the spirit” — “We need a spirit,” he implores the politician. But the film is almost stolen away from Beatty by Don Cheadle (Out of Sight, Boogie Nights) as inner-city drug kingpin L.D., who in his one substantial scene chews out Bulworth with an ardent rant on why his employment of elementary-school dealers and enforcers is a good thing for them, and why black communities in America are such a mess.
Extraordinarily well written and performed, Bulworth is simply brilliant.