Bulworth Calls Bullshit!
Warren Beatty's new political satire hits all the right buttons to create a cult hero for the '90s.
By Mary Dickson
JUNE 1, 1998: The opening of Bulworth says it all: A depleted, depressed and despondent senator sits numbly in his office, crying as he watches clips of his "We stand on the doorstep of a new millennium" campaign spots. The senator is not only indiscreet, he's suicidal.
Something is rotten in the state of California and across America and he has had enough. In the final weekend before the election, he takes out a huge insurance policy and a contract on his own life, and returns to California where, like the naive Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he is completely candid with the voters. His pre-arranged assassination frees him to do and say just what he pleases for once. His candor, like this amazingly original and intelligent comedy, is refreshing, outrageously funny, and simultaneously deeply disconcerting.
Warren Beatty, who had complete artistic control over this provocative project, makes a powerful statement in his brilliantly executed and darkly comic satire, which is constantly entertaining but never angry. As writer, director and producer, he crafts this film with passion and care, making his most potent political statement to date. You never know quite where he's going, and his loopy fable offers one surprise after another, right up until its sobering end.
It's a film that will outrage some, but one which every Americanparticularly politiciansshould see. Beatty, a former Democratic activist disillusioned with both parties, zooms in on what is wrong in America with uncanny precision, couching his hard-hitting message in charming humor. He's right on target, from race and class to the electoral process, campaign financing, media monopolies, corporate greed, Washington and the power of big money, and all the rest. He taps into the widespread and deep-seated American discontent that could very well be revolutionary.
The system, Bulworth sees, is badly broken, and while we all know it, we feel powerless to do anything about it. Ironically, Beatty has a voice because he himself is rich and famous. His disenchanted senator, a corrupt politician who becomes as disgusted with himself as with the system, hits the campaign trail with the abandon of a mad man, telling it like it isvotes, contributions and money are meaningless now. The senator, who hasn't eaten or slept in days, is in the midst of a nervous breakdown and there's no stopping him.
At a church of African Americans, when asked why the party didn't do anything for the African American community, he smiles, "Isn't it obvious? We don't care about you people. You don't contribute money to my campaign."
When an outraged patron asks why he came to the event, he answers "My people aren't stupid. They always put the big Jews on my schedule." At a fund raising dinner he scraps his notes and begins rhyming about how "taxpayers, taxpayers take it in the rear."
During a TV debate, he notes with amusement, "We've got three rich guys asking two rich guys questions and you're getting money from the same guys who are paying us."
Beatty bridges the race divide by plopping his character into a tough South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles where he not only begins dressing like a rapper, but actually starts rapping like some sort of Dr. Seuss on speed. Never stooping to preachiness, Beatty makes his earnest message palatable in Bulworth's clever rapping, which provides some of the best political commentary to come along in years. By adopting this vehicle of social protest, this old, white guy turns into a young, black activist.
In one interview his character dismisses the race divide: "White people have more in common with colored than with rich."
It's not race; it's class; it's economics. His solution for racial desegregation? "Get rid of the white people ... get rid of the brown people ... the black people ... Everybody got to keep fuckin' everybody until they're all the same color."
Beatty, who at 61 remains one of the sexiest men on the screen, is at his most naughty-boy charming in Bulworth. He still has the stuff, and he's a more seasoned, thoughtful and wiser charmer who's also a natural comedian. He would make one hell of a politician, if he ever had the stomach for it.
As his Sen. Bulworth sees the public support his seemingly insane populist tirades muster, he's given a new lease on life. He tries to call off the hit, but he may be too late. "Never make a life and death decision when you're suicidal," he says. He's also reinvigorated when he meets a beautiful and very smart black woman (Halle Berry).
Beatty brilliantly contrasts two Americasthe rich and powerful moneyed interests, and the dispossessed inner-city minorities who can't play the game so create their own economic system. In one segment, Bulworth hides out from the hit man with Halle's inner-city family. When he walks out on the streets, he's accosted by a roving gang of childrenlittle kids with guns wanting to sell him smack. Their leader claims he's just a businessman in the only business open to him. But Bulworth doesn't accept any excuses and calls bullshit, wherever he sees it.
With Bulworth, Beatty touches a raw nerve and hits all the right buttons to create a cult hero for the '90s. It's a brave, defiant and triumphant film. The very fact that it could be made and distributed is a good sign. That we've seen three political satires this yearWag the Dog, Primary Colors and now Bulworth says a lot about where public sentiment is. We're as tired of the system as is Bulworth, and maybe, just maybe, like the senator, we'll finally say, "We're not going to take it anymore."
The real tragedy, however, is that in the end, even Beatty knows a Bulworth can never be.
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