Bulworth (1998)

D: Warren Beatty
S: Warren Beatty, Halle Berry

Thought-provoking political satire played as absurdist farce which keeps the audience on edge by teetering on the brink of being grossly offensive and patronising. Warren Beatty plays a Democratic Senator whose disillusionment on the eve of the 1996 primaries after what has evidently been a life of compromise has him suicidal and irrational to the point where he takes out a life insurance policy on himself and hires a hit man to bump him off. Liberated by the knowledge of his certain death, he attends several functions at which he drops the veneer of politics and says what's really on his mind. After an encounter with some African-American girls including beautiful Halle Berry, he takes to rapping and throws all caution to the wind, freely expounding on his theories about what's wrong with America in rhyme even on television.

The film is essentially an excuse for Beatty to sound off on various issues, and it never convinces as drama. The story provides a loose framework from some picaresque encounters with characters who set him off, including drug dealer Don Cheadle (Out of Sight, Boogie Nights) and the spin doctor played by Oliver Platt (Funny Bones) (who tries to come up with a positive interpretation of what his boss is doing. Beatty handles the individual scenes with characteristic skill, and he never fails to generate an inappropriate laugh and cause us to shift uncomfortably in our seats as we try to figure out if he's expecting us to follow the story or just listen to the endless stream of political rhetoric. The former becomes more difficult as it goes. A series of ludicrous twists threaten to turn it into a screwball comedy, and though we are given a rationale for the action in Bulworth's continuing sleep deprivation and sense of panic when he realises he doesn't want to die after all, there is no way we can believe the final scenes unless we actually dismiss the whole thing as a story and think of it as a surrealist trip through Beatty's political consciousness. There is a nice feeling of ambiguity to it for a while, but the literal resolution is believable only as trope and the coda is the stuff of poetry, not storytelling.

It is worthwhile though. The film rarely misses a target when mouthing off about the media, capitalism and contemporary politics. It is pointed, direct and always honest, reflecting disillusionment and uncertainty even about itself (its jabs at Hollywood are not blunted by self-preservation). It is less self-assured with its ability to articulate an oppositional position than films of an earlier period in American liberalism like The Candidate or Beatty's own Reds. This is reflected in its obsession with African-American culture, which is less clear-cut than the standard knockabout comedy of the rest of it (running from the media, avoiding assassination attempts, infuriating the establishment, etc). Here more than in any other aspect it is difficult to know where Beatty has drawn the line between mockery and satire, and there are one or two plot developments which seem too convenient and formulaic not to smack of old fashioned liberal angst. When Cheadle seems to convert from gangsterism to social advocacy, it rings hollow, and the romantic aspects of the ending seems more like a joke at the expense of narrative resolution rather than a follow-up to statements made by the character earlier on. Yet, like everything else, we must assume that his appropriation of racial discourse is a weapon with which to bludgeon the audience into questioning social and political values, and in this, it succeeds. It is among the most serious discussions of American politics put on film, and, given its patently bizarre approach, it is also among the most entertaining. It is daring, it does demand to be noticed, and it certainly makes its points (and makes them, and makes them, and makes them). It is not recommended to all viewers, and you have to have a certain fondness for Beatty in the first place before you can even begin to enjoy what he's doing, but Bulworth is probably the most provocative film you'll see on the American screen for some time, and strikes a contrast with the more conventional (though on its own terms perfectly good) Primary Colors.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.