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Bulworth is one of the most audacious American comedies of the past decade. If this were the first movie of a young filmmaker, we'd be heralding the arrival of a great new talent. But it's not. It's from Warren Beatty. That's maybe the biggest surprise about Bulworth, that it was made within the Hollywood system, by an established Hollywood star. Bulworth doesn't feel like establishment. It feels like the work of a young rebel filmmaker, which means the results are passionate, as well as simplistic. In addition, the movie's wit tends to die out long before the final reel, but Bulworth is still a stunning movie.
When the movie opens, we find Senator Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty) teetering on the brink of insanity. He hasn't eaten in several days. Uneaten pizzas litter his office. His eyes are out of focus. He sits at his desk, staring into space. "We stand on the doorstep of a new millenium," says a campaign promo. "We stand on the doorstep … We stand on … We stand on the doorstep …" As this mantra gets repeated over and over again, we begin to experience the mind numbing effect it must have upon Senator Bulworth. The same glad hands, the same smiles, the same empty promises, the same payoffs from corporations--the life of a politician who sold out long ago. In addition, Bulworth has recently lost a bundle in the stock market. The system isn't just not working for him any longer--it's strangling him.
So Bulworth arranges his own assassination. "If I'm not dead by Monday morning, I'm putting a stop on that check," he tells the racketeer who will arrange the murder. With the help of a crooked insurance company executive (what other kind is there? suggests Bulworth) who provides him with a $1,000,000 life insurance policy (in exchange for an insurance-company-friendly piece of legislation) with Bulworth's daughter named as the primary beneficiary, the stage is set for Bulworth's death. But wait … death is sort of … final … isn't it? So as he walks through the airport, Bulworth begins looking over his shoulder. When he hears a sharp crack, he spins and falls to the floor. And after he crawls back to his feet, his gait quickly turns into a jog and then he's running. … Maybe assassination wasn't such a good idea after all.
With his own death imminent, Bulworth begins saying everything he kept bottled up in the past, while Oliver Platt as his press agent (in a wonderfully funny performance) cringes in the wings. When Bulworth speaks before a largely black audience, for example, he tells them their voice will never be heard in Washington unless they "put down that malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind somebody other than a running back who stabs his wife." … Bulworth might not need an assassin after all. People will soon be lining up for the opportunity to kill him. Later, at a fundraiser in Hollywood, he says "My guys aren't stupid. They always put the big Jews on my schedule." Here's a politician who speaks what he thinks, regardless of how it might affect his career. At one point, Platt even sets off the fire alarm to prevent Bulworth from rambling any further.
These scenes set us up for the movie's biggest surprise: Bulworth enters a black nightclub and after he soaks up the atmosphere--heck, he parties till dawn!--he soon begins sloganizing in rhyme--like a rap star. With a trio of beautiful young black women in tow (including Halle Berry, in a nearly mute performance), Bulworth hits the campaign trail. While his entourage yells encouragement, Bulworth chucks his prepared speeches and begins rapping. He doesn't exactly sound like a real rapper. In fact, that's part of the charm of the movie: Bulworth sounds exactly like a square, uptight white guy. But he raps non-stop, nonetheless. Eventually, he's even dressed in wrap-around shades, a black knit cap, sneakers, and baggy shorts, as he runs through the 'hood.
Bulworth is truly crazy, but it's a rare brand of craziness. It allows him to see more clearly than before (as does Peter Finch's craziness in Network: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more"). But it's also about this time that Bulworth runs out of ideas. The movie doesn't exactly turn bad, but it loses its edge through sheer repetition. How many times do we really need to see Beatty do his rapping schtick? To the film's credit, however, what Bulworth soaks up about the black perspective isn't always right. For example, in an encounter with a black drug dealer, L.D. (played by Don Cheadle), who enlists children as part of his work force, Bulworth ends up walking out. But later, during a campaign debate, Bulworth repeats part of L.D.'s twisted viewpoint--the parts that actually make sense: "Don't be saying [the answer is education], because everybody knows there ain't no education going on in that motherfucker." This becomes Bulworth's genius--to suck the truth out of all the garbage that is fed to him (never mind that people such as L.D. are a major reason why the educational system has broken down). And that's the genius of Bulworth: that there is a germ of truth in almost everything said in the movie, no matter how blunt or ridiculous it might seem at first.
Let's not forget that this is the same Warren Beatty who gave us the left-leaning Reds (and even won an Academy Award in the process), so maybe we shouldn't be surprised at the leftist politics that fuel Bulworth. But in an age when virtually all Hollywood movies get dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, Beatty dares to give us a story that has the potential for annoying everyone in the audience. Bulworth feels like it had the potential for greatness, but the script stumbles when Beatty starts hip hoppin'. This is still a powerful movie.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]