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Bulworth

At first, I thought I knew what to expect from Bulworth. The DVD case promised a very dark political satire, which just happens to be my favorite kind. Oh, and the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar? Even better!

I was very eager to pop in the disc, only to find so many credits that surprised and baffled me. Sean Astin is in this movie? Don Cheadle? Paul Sorvino? A subsequent IMDB check showed that Michael Clarke Duncan and — of all people — Sarah Silverman were both in there somewhere. And that was just the cast. My eyes literally bugged out of my head when I saw that the score was composed by Ennio Morricone. One of the precious few composers on this planet who are so prolific and beloved in the film community that even John Williams would have to bow down to him, and he’s scoring this movie? How the hell did that happen?

But then came the biggest mindfuck of all. The one name I never would have imagined seeing in the opening credits of this picture: Frank Capra III. Yes, you read that right. Frank Capra, after making some of the most heartwarming and patriotic slices of Americana in cinema history, had a grandson who co-produced this picture. This lineage went from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about a senator with a heart of gold who fights the system and ultimately wins, to Bulworth, about a senator who becomes disillusioned enough to arrange his own assassination. What the sweet and sour fuck happened here?!

Mind-boggling credits aside, Bulworth is a film that wastes no time coming at its audience with both barrels. I didn’t think a film made back in 1998 could still be so timely with regard to American politics and rhetoric, but if there was ever a living embodiment of today’s attitude toward Capitol Hill, it’s Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth.

Warren Beatty (also the producer, writer, and director of this picture) introduces his character who appears quite physically sick of all the two-faced crap that surrounds him every day, especially in an election year (the film takes place while the 1996 presidential race is happening elsewhere). Of course — given that Bulworth hasn’t eaten or slept for several days by the time we meet him — it’s possible that the ennui is merely a result of fatigue or clinical depression. But the film is funnier and more relevant if we think he’s just fed up with all the bullshit, so let’s go with that.

Bulworth is so overwhelmingly tired that he would seriously rather pay a hitman to kill him than keep going on. Why not just commit suicide, you ask? Well, there’s an insurance lobbyist (Paul Sorvino) who offers Bulworth a $10 million life insurance policy as a bribe for shutting down a new health care bill. If he’s going to go out, Bulworth may as well leave something for his daughter in the bargain, right?

So Bulworth goes campaigning in LA while waiting for some assassin to catch up with him. All the while, he cuts through a ton of empty Washington rhetoric in an apparent effort to clear his conscience and/or have a bit of fun before dying. I had mixed feelings watching such brutal honesty and rampant disregard for decorum. On the one hand, I sincerely wish that our elected officials were so open and candid about their feelings and the financial reasons behind their voting records. It also helps that Bulworth isn’t being remotely malicious in what he says, he’s just calling it like he sees it.

On the other hand, I see the guy acting like a negligent ass with a possible case of mental illness, and I find myself asking if I would really vote for him. The guy who’s too honest for his own good, or the dishonest guy who cares about nothing except his own good? That is a question for the ages, and no mistake. Personally, I would settle for a sense of humor. That seems like a nice middle ground for a leader. But I digress.

The plot takes us to the LA inner city, which of course gives Bulworth all manner of excuses to talk about how disenfranchised the poor and the African-Americans are. Naturally, this means that Bulworth and his aides — all of whom are rich white guys — rub shoulders with black people in their native Compton habitat. There’s obviously an element of racial humor in this set-up, but it’s more about the clash of financial status and lifestyle as well.

It speaks volumes, in my opinion, that Bulworth gets along relatively well because he acts all calm with nothing to lose. The guy’s obviously harmless, and there’s clearly no mockery intended in his lame imitations of those surrounding him, so everyone is more or less okay with letting him be. Compare this to Bulworth’s aides (most notably campaign manager Dennis Murphy, played by Oliver Platt), who are so uptight and nervous that they stick out like ducks in a shooting gallery.

I’ll give this to Warren Beatty, he had absolutely no problem acting like a goddamned fool in this picture. I was surprised at first, but then I remembered Ishtar. Both films employ Warren Beatty singing and dancing in a way that’s comically bad, except that it works in this film. Perhaps the difference is that unlike the pathetic yet sincere attempts at entertaining people in Ishtar, Bulworth simply doesn’t give a fuck. He isn’t trying to impress anyone, he’s just out to have fun, which automatically makes his antics all the more enjoyable in turn. Of course, it also helps that while Bulworth can’t rap to save his life, his freestyle music is still better and funnier than any of Beatty’s numbers in Ishtar.

For me, the highlight comes when Bulworth goes up to give a huge fundraising speech — with his wife and Sorvino’s insurance lobbyist both in attendance — only to burst out into rap. This old rich white guy parades through the ballroom, stating “people got their problems, the haves and have-nots/but the ones that make me listen pay for thirty-second spots.” All the while, stony faces look on as Bulworth waves his hands in the air like he just doesn’t care. Because, again, he really doesn’t. My hand to God, I wish this could happen in the real world. Somebody please re-enact this scene and put it up on YouTube.

…Granted, this scene has the huge logistical problem of why someone never thought to cut the senator’s mic, but whatever.

Then there’s Halle Berry, playing the main love interest. Remember, Warren Beatty was pushing 60 at the time of this film’s release while Berry had just turned 30. He’s white, she’s black; he plays a rich politician and she plays a woman who rolls with legitimate gangsters; they seriously have nothing in common. On the one hand, it makes for one of the film’s more powerful contrasts in culture and lifestyle, and that’s saying something. On the other hand, it begs the question of why Bulworth has fallen so completely and suddenly in love with her. Then again, I’m not sure Bulworth always has a reason for everything he does in this movie.

Getting back to Berry herself, she spends way too much time in this film as an enigma. Nina barely says a word to Bulworth through half the running time, which makes their romance arc together all the weaker. But then, completely out of nowhere, Nina gets a monologue. She gets a tremendously lengthy diatribe that’s dense with all manner of fascinating socio-political ideas. I could not for the life of me get a handle on this character.

Luckily, she soon got a laughably fortuitous plot twist and it all clicked together. She started out as an enigma so the filmmakers could bless her with whatever the character needed to move the plot forward at the exact moment when she needed it. She’s a terribly handled character, simple as that.

In fact, now that I think about it, it seems like Bulworth was the only character in this film who got any attempt at development. In some cases, yes, that’s part of the point: The film would be a poor parody if it didn’t have some two-dimensional straw men to poke fun at (see: Platt’s campaign manager and Sorvino’s insurance lobbyist). But what about the other, more sympathetic characters in this film, all of whom were wastes of perfectly good actors?

Take Jack Warden, for example. He plays Eddie Davers, a man who’s clearly a dear friend to Bulworth and plays a vital role in the plot, but I couldn’t tell you what Davers does or how he and Bulworth know each other. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about Davers, other than his uncanny ability to show up precisely where and when the plot needs him to.

And he’s not the only one. What about the C-SPAN crew, played by Sean Astin, Wendell Pierce, and Laurie Metcalf? What about the campaign aide played by Joshua Malina? All of these actors and their characters get a tremendous amount of screen time, but I couldn’t even tell you their names if I tried.

Still, I think the biggest disappointment is Ennio Morricone. Precious little of the film’s score is instrumental, and what little there is sounds pitifully generic. Instead, the film’s music is comprised almost entirely of rap songs from the ’90s. It’s better than most of the rap music today, I grant you, and the songs do a lot to reinforce the overarching anti-authoritarian theme, but it still dates the film.

Then we have the editing, which is not good at all. There are some glaring continuity glitches, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the truly godawful moments of ADR.

With all of that said, the ending is enough that I’m willing to forgive a lot of the movie’s faults. Just when the movie’s dark and disillusioned satire started to lose its edge, the filmmakers yanked out the rug with a powerful condemnation of the status quo. There’s no other way the film could possibly have ended, and I’m thankful that Beatty had the guts to actually go through with it. Even better, the film has a hint of ambiguity to it, leaving the audience some leeway to apply their own optimistic/pessimistic outlook toward how the story truly ends.

And then, just to add a cherry on top, we’re left with an implicit message of optimism. We’re left with a reminder of the film’s thesis, which is basically “the world sucks, so go out and do something about it.” Even trying and failing to bring positive change would be better than giving up entirely. Or, as the film so eloquently puts it, “Be a spirit, not a ghost.”

There’s no denying that Bulworth has some glaring flaws. The film has more than a few obvious technical issues, and Bulworth himself is the only character with any decent amount of development. There’s also the extremely dated ’90s rap soundtrack, though the songs were well-chosen.

Yet even with all of these caveats, I can still give the film a recommendation. Though we’ve seen much darker and more pointed political satire in recent years (In the Loop, anyone?), this movie offers some barbs that are still very sharp and very timely. There are times when Warren Beatty shows that he has a lot of guts, and calling his performance “committed” would be an understatement.

Though I wouldn’t call it a classic, it’s absolutely worth a look. If nothing else, be sure to give it a rental when the next election season comes around.

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