Bulworth. Warren Beatty advised George McGovern in the 1972 campaign. Nixon won in a landslide. Later, he went on to have sex with Madonna and enjoyed it enough to allow himself to be filmed in her grotesque documentary Truth or Dare (wherein he actually looked to be a beacon of sanity and maturity). Somewhere in between these ignominies, he must have conceived Bulworth.
Not Birth of a Nation but closer to Huggy Bear in “Starsky and Hutch” offensive, the film begins as a lampoon of the modern American politician beholden to the evil and corrupt corporations. It ends as a morality tale that even “the brothers” are supposed to understand. The senator, you see, has sold out and – gasp! (a gasp probably heard most audibly in the relative splendor of Beverly Hills) – is in the collective pockets of the health insurance industry, the welfare reformers, and the anti-affirmative action crowd. For those of Beatty’s stripe, this is the modern equivalent to enslavement.
Beatty, as the senator, suffers a breakdown in the midst of his crisis of conscience (and finances). On the eve of a primary, and, in a suicidal funk, he arranges his own murder to provide insurance money for his heirs. Why? Who cares? The cheap plot device allows Beatty to speak the plain truth in his final days.
He embraces the African-American urban culture, or at least, Beatty’s vision of same (it appears to be culturally tone-deaf, more “Jeffersons” than Beatty might want to admit). As he speaks the truth, he raps, and wears the acoutrements of the urban ghetto. He also fumbles his way through the closing days of his primary. He preaches, in garbled rap, that the parties are all the same, the rich folk are bad, and the country is controlled by a monolithic entity (including the media) that keeps “the brothers” down. As for the brothers, they are portrayed either as beatific, just-seen-the-light types, “You go, Bulworth” fly girls or mere background for the Beatty-as-homey sight gag.
Message? All it takes for racial justice is an addled but straight-up white man to stand up to the racist LAPD, eschew the drug trade and stick it to “the man.” In the telling, the black characters are relegated to the worst kind of condescension. Halle Berry, the whitest of the black characters in skin tone, is hired to be Beatty’s demise, yet becomes his soulmate (Beatty always gets the girl); the little drug-dealers are treated to ice cream by the kind white man who stands up to the bad white cops; and the drug lord (Don Cheadle) changes his ways at the sight of such honesty and compassion.
Beatty not only touches the people, he is touched. What he sees in the ‘hood – the desolation wrought by Cigna and Humana – almost brings him to tears.
But let’s not get too maudlin. Beatty also eats collard greens. Except, it isn’t collard greens. It’s kale! Get it? A funny white man eats collard greens, but it turns out, it isn’t collard greens, it is kale, and he doesn’t know the difference.
More yuks follow. Because if the “the brothers” are to be engaged, it got to rap, it got to groove, and it got to be Jimmie JJ Walker funny. So Beatty bounces from one venue to the next, saying “co**sucker” and “motherfu**er” because that’s the truth both “the brothers” and the American people will understand. And Beatty employs various get-ups, often approaching the comic genius of Eddie Murphy as The Nutty Professor.
At the heart of this self-satisfied broadside against the status quo is the rich Hollywood conceit that, if only someone talked straight to the anaestethized, bamboozled people about the falsity of their existence, the system would be fixed, schools would be changed, health care would be free to all, the ghetto would be energized, and Huey Newton would get his props in the pantheon of social reformers. And who better than an aging Hollywood type who dabbles in politics and used to hang with Hef to deliver this message?
By the end, Beatty’s revelation to the people (never fully realized through either McGovern or Madonna) is a big hit. He wins his primary. Hints of a presidential run are dropped. We see the light! He’s not Clinton. He’s not Gingrich. He’s not Dole. He’s Bulworth. And he’s down.
On the plus side, the performances are all rather good. Beatty exhibits deft physical comedy and Oliver Platt as his scum-sucking campaign manager has some very funny moments.
I am glad of the film, for there are people who still adhere to the tripe Beatty is selling, and between hosting talk shows, touting anti-bullying, fighting trans-fat, and rushing to “Larry King” to bemoan the horror of celebrity when a Princess Diana dies, it is nice to know that they have a good rental. Still, in the genre of self-congratulatory, lefty sermons, they’d do better with Bob Roberts, An American President, or Wag the Dog.
All pretty awful films, but, in comparison to Bulworth, true gems.