[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, May 15, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
It’s the 1996 primary season, and if the populace is unaroused, U.S. senator Jay Bulworth (longtime Democratic activist Warren Beatty) is downright unhinged. His marriage is a charade, his brain long since pickled by rhetoric, his soul in fealty to fat-cat lobbyists. His effort to pour his old liberal wine into a new conservative bottle may get him reelected, but will that help him live with himself? Not really. After taking out $10 million in life insurance for the sake of his daughter, he applies to a shady sort named Vinnie to arrange a “special research project”—a contract on … Jay Bulworth!
The knowledge that he is about to die at any minute proves profoundly liberating. Making a last round of public appearances, Jay abandons his set speech and, between mouthfuls of canapes, starts talking turkey to his constituents, from the Jewish moguls of Bel Air (whose movies are mostly “crap”) to the blacks of South Central (“If you don’t put down the malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind somebody other than a running back who stabbed his wife, you’re never gonna get rid of somebody like me”). The Jews don’t know whether to feel outrage or guilt. The blacks—including a sultry mystery woman (Halle Berry) who catches his Jay’s eye across sundry crowded rooms—like his style. Especially when it becomes theirs: soon Bulworth has turned full-time rapper and begun a screwball-comedy journey through Watts to the beat of Dr. Dre.
In a season of mechanized spectacle and brain-dead comedies, Bulworth is a brave and bracing exception. It not only addresses itself to the fallen state of American politics more passionately than Primary Colors or Wag the Dog—it strikes out more boldly than any American film of the year to find an idiom all its own. Star/co-writer/producer/director Beatty is working with the usual heavyweight team (cameraman Vittorio Storaro et al.), but Bulworth eschews the handsome production values of Reds or Bugsy for a scruffier, driving energy and a rebop editing rhythm that sends dust devils of satirical insight whirling in giddy counterpoint.
Not least among its fascinations is the way Beatty treats Beatty. Always the most intellectually ambitious of modern producer-stars, the actor has often made his own celebrity a key theme (starting with the movie-struck outlaws of Bonnie and Clyde). Bulworth is no vanity portrait. Physically and psychically, Jay is a mess, and when he flirtatiously asks Nina (Berry) how old she thinks he really is, her unhesitating “Sixty” is on the Pirandellian mark. There’s also a droll running gag about his being mistaken for George Hamilton, a they-all-look-alike joke that also reminds us of the dubious Hollywood glamour Beatty has never shaken free of.
Bulworth is far from perfect. The liberal idolatry of the black mystique gets a bit thick, and like a political campaign the film falls into repetitiveness and incantation now and then. But it also finds its way to some salutary truths—and a lot of very funny business. – Richard T. Jameson