The Bonfire of the Vanities

Brian De Palma
Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman
The Setup: 
A crime sets in motion a city-wide circus and much commentary.

So in my drive to re-evaluate all of the De Palma films, I knew I would eventually have to face this one. This is an adaptation of the bestseller by Thomas Wolfe of The Right Stuff and others, and is legendary as being just a terrible, terrible movie. This came right after De Palma did The Untouchables and the less well-received bid for seriousness, Casualties of War, and right before Raising Cain. The word is that De Palma was crushed by the lackluster reception to Casualties, which was a very personal film and an attempt to get the attention as a serious filmmaker that his buddies Spielberg and Coppola had achieved, and looked to this film as a sure-fire winner and a good opportunity to gain that respect. And of course it was a mammoth disaster.

We open with a time-lapse shot of Manhattan coming to life in the morning under the eye of an eagle from the Chrysler Building, then panning across as the city descends into night. There is this effect of streaking light that turns into the title, an effect that says “serious, mainstream film of the 80s” and that I don’t really want to see open a De Palma film. We then have the famous five-minute tracking shot as Bruce Willis as drunken author Peter Fallow [we’ve got annoyingly character-expressing Dickensian names throughout] arrives at this banquet in his honor. The shot is admirable for just how complicated it is and all the ground it covers—it’s kind of amazing—but I’m not sure it really serves the point of the film in any way, and could easily serve as ammunition for those who argue that De Palma is all style over substance. Fallow is a drunken lech, and the scene, like the rest of the movie, is simultaneously funny and numbingly broad. He is being celebrated for this book he wrote, and the movie is a flashback about the story of that book.

So we go back a year earlier where we meet millionaire Sherman McCoy, played by Tom Hanks, taking his daschund out for a walk in a pouring rainstorm. There is some “comedy” about how the dog doesn’t want to go, including a shot that nearly torpedoes the movie before it even really begins: the inert dog being dragged along on its side. What, am I watching The Flintstones? It is impossible to overstate how alienating this one shot is. Ten minutes into the movie, expectations are revised drastically downward. Anyway, Sherman makes it to the phone booth [he has to go to the corner to use a pay phone when he wants to make a private call—it’s surprising now how very odd this seems, how quickly cell phones have taken over], but he accidentally calls his wife Judy, played by Kim Cattrall. She is on her lifecycle exer-bike when he gets back, trying to get him to admit to lying in her anesthetized, sing-song voice. She is angry at him because he’s causing her stress and to make angry faces which will cause unsightly lines and cause her to age prematurely.

I can’t remember whether it’s before or after the accident that we see Sherman at the New York Stock Exchange and hear in the ill-advised voice-over—three times—that he’s a “master of the universe.” I don’t know if the voice-over is actual Tom Wolfe writing or is just a watered-down approximation of it, but I hope it’s neither because it is clangingly awful. Really dated pompous gasbag writing. Although one can see how it inspired a generation of pompous gasbag writers in its wake. Sherman is about to make a $600 million deal. Then he picks up Melanie Griffith as Maria, this Southern woman with an unfortunate attempt at an accent who is a sex machine with the mental capacity of a five-year-old. They are canoodling in the car and Sherman misses the turn-off to Manhattan and they end up in the Bronx. He says they just have to turn around and get back on the highway, but they drive significantly far into the Bronx for people who just want to turn around. The version of the Bronx in this movie is an outrageous stereotype wherein there are pimps beating up whores and cars ablaze and people lingering in the streets. Sherman and Maria somehow end up under this ramp, and Sherman has get out of the car to move a tire out of the way. When he does, he is approached by two black men, and Maria panics and guns the car over to him, at which point the tire lands on one of the guys [it is purposely unclear what actually happened], and they take off. Sherman wants to report it to the police, but Maria advises him that their affair will then be revealed.

We then meet Morgan Freeman as a judge, who delivers a boatload of exposition about how since the Mayor is up for re-election it behooves him to find a white guy to prosecute. We then meet this Al Sharpton-type preacher who latches on to the story and rallies his community. Then this classic cigar-smoking fatcat Albert informs Fallow, who has just lost his job because he’s a drunk, that the case is developing and he could turn it into a story. So it’s this whole thing about how the ambitions and political motivations of a number of different parties interlock to trump up the story and turn it into something. The victim, by the way, is named Henry Lamb. I warned you about those Dickensian names.

Judy, who is now fully aware of the affair, is now quite belittling and cold to Sherman. There is one scene where she is describing to her daughter what Sherman does for a living in quite a belittling way. As we see the daughter it’s like “Wait a minute—is that Baby Dunst?” And yes, it’s Kirsten Dunst as a eight-year-old, already adorable as hell and fully able to convey a character.

Now we begin the long and only vaguely interesting section of social commentary, skipping back and forth between the many various gears that are setting up to process Sherman’s case. We skip from the mayor’s office to the D.A.’s office to Freeman’s courtroom to the Sharpton-type’s rallies [with appearances by Geraldo Rivera] and to swank parties with windbag poets introduced by their achievements: “He’s on the short list for the Nobel Prize and he has AIDS.” It’s all vaguely amusing, yet if there were anything really interesting I would be telling you about it.

So now it starts getting fairly tedious as one can see every cynical move from a mile away. There’s a huge circus as Sherman comes into court, then he and Willis share a subway ride where Sherman drops that he wasn’t driving the car. Then he goes home and there’s a huge party and his wife announces that she’s leaving him and his co-op board kicks them out of the building and Sherman starts shooting a shotgun off [one that shoots multiple times while only being loaded with two cartridges]. Yes, it’s THAT madcap.

Blah, blah, blah Fallow starts growing an unearned conscience, some woman Xeroxes her snatch while telling Willis that Maria was driving the car, things start to focus on Maria, who proves conclusively that she has no conscience whatsoever, Sherman is starting to stand up for himself more, and his father shows up and tells him to lie.

So Maria is lying on the stand and Sherman plays the tape [from the intercom back on the night of the murder] and the trial is thrown out. Then Morgan Freeman delivers a supposed-to-be-stirring speech about how we should all “be decent to each other, like our mother’s taught us,” complete with gently stirring music, calling out each of the parties for moral comeuppance, we return to the book party for Fallow from the beginning, and we out.

Now, do you know that there’s an entire book that details the many small wrong decisions that went into making this movie what it is? It’s called The Devil’s Candy by Julie Salamon. She wanted to write a book documenting the production of a movie from beginning to end, and she just happened to luck upon one that turned out to be a doozy. Among the main things considered wrong were the casting, several decisions along the way, and especially changing Morgan Freeman’s character from a Jewish judge to a black one in order to quell potential discussion of racism, and I think the whole “be decent” speech at the end was added as well. The whole thing is about the many misguided decisions that can add up to ruin a movie, in this case because of extreme sensitivity to whether the subject matter would offend anyone. The problem is that the story is supposed to jam on hot-button issues, and trying to soft-pedal certain aspects proves rather than expresses the cynical point of the book. I haven’t read the book, but from what I understand, if you have, what resulted in this movie is even more appalling.

Okay, so just considering the film itself? Misguided. Bad, surely, but not quite as bad as you’ve heard. It lurches wildly in tone [like those horrid jabs into Ace Ventura-level dog dragging], and what’s trying to come off as clever, distanced, witty social commentary just comes off as assholes trying to be cosmopolitan. The cynicism of the whole thing lacks cleverness, so eventually one just starts to hate the movie, rather than the people it is trying to skewer.

Without comparing them to how they appear in the novel, I wasn’t so bothered by the casting. Hanks was actually pretty good, if veering a touch into too broad. Willis is definitely too broad and doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in the role. Melanie Griffith is actually fine for what she is, but it doesn’t change the fact that her entire persona is akin to having a howler monkey screaming into your ear. Kim Cattrall is fine but her character, as written is way, wayyyy too broad.

That’s another problem of that plagues the movie from the start. The average person is going to look at these characters as though they may as well be aliens in a science-fiction film. It is virtually impossible to understand who they are and why they act and speak the way they do, and what matters to them. You’re sitting there saying “Who ARE these people?” I suspect De Palma meant for them to come off as very strange, but here they’re so strange it’s quite alienating. And they’re the main characters, an additional problem.

One last thing, and this is probably the fault of the novel, is that it’s just off-puttingly cynical. Yeah, yeah, corruption, everyone out for their own gain, we get it. And when you combine that with the fact that the comedy here never comes to life, and in fact remains steadfastly dead, and you’ve got something that is not good-bad, but just clangingly banal bad.

But Brian, I still love you.

Should you watch it: 

I wouldn’t, unless you’re a serious De Palma fan who must face the bad as well as the good.