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Beatty's 'Bulworth':
A Call to the Left

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 1998

  Movie Critic

Bulworth Warren Beatty wrote, directed, produced and stars in "Bulworth." (20th Century Fox)

Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty;
Halle Berry;
Don Cheadle;
Oliver Platt;
Paul Sorvino;
Jack Warden;
Isaiah Washington;
Joshua Malina;
Christine Baranski;
Laurie Metcalf
Running Time:
1 hour; 47 minutes
For profanity, sexual allusions and violence
Some call him the space cowboy and some call him the gangster of love, but in "Bulworth," Warren Beatty finds a new persona: He's the preacher man, proselytizing from his pulpit amid a spray of spit, fire, brimstone and capped teeth. "Bulworth" is less a movie than a sermon on Mount Paramount.

Its message: Go left, young man. This is a great liberal movie, which is to say, it will be loved most passionately by great liberals, and despised by the conservatives it contemptuously fails to notice. Hailing from the most radical sheik around, it's really a jeremiad from the left to the center of the Democratic Party, calling the flock home, hoping to rekindle vanished idealism and compassion, hoping to reignite the fire of activism and, by massive applications of shock, to stir up the juice of energy. (It could have been a message from Hillary to Bill.)

Most Republicans, obviously, will think it's a load of hooey, another charm-rich, brain-dead, Chablis-lubricated slide down the slippery slope to bigger, more intrusive rule and to, in Beatty's own rap-rhythmed words, "the only ism that's worth a thing, and that's socialism": the bad idea of government as redistribution mechanism for wealth, protector of the cult of victimization and guarantor of the loot of entitlement.

Possibly it works best to think of it as two movies. The first is political satire, razor-sharp and devastatingly funny; the second is amorphous and poorly thought out, contradictory, uncertain, misguided, not quite even professional.

Beatty (who wrote and directed as well) plays Jay Worthington Bulworth, a Democratic senator from California who, as the movie opens, is losing it – his wealth, his sanity and his incumbency. Bad investments in Asia bring him to the brink of financial ruin, his polls are in the toilet, but his real problem is a dead battery where his soul used to be. He has been eroded by the process of politics, which the movie represents as compromise compounded by massive amounts of sucking up. It's become so expensive that even the purest of spirits must kneel before the corporations that fund it all, and Jay Bulworth, going on his 48th hour of sleeplessness, is a bad accident waiting to happen.

It does. In a fit of depression, he contacts a sleazy operative and pays for his own assassination, leaving his insurance money (ill-gotten by compromise) to his daughter, ignoring his estranged walking face lift of a wife (Christine Baranski). The freedom of approaching death, the sleeplessness, the despair and, of course, jet lag, conspire to create a completely anomalous figure: a politician at last unafraid to tell the truth.

Here Beatty really connects. With his square-jawed, flat-stomached beauty, his great froth of moussed, frosted hair, his exquisitely tailored suits and his immense self-seriousness, he looks like very much like the model major politician, so highly evolved and disconnected from reality that he could be made of pixels instead of protein. But from this mouth, from those snowcaps of teeth and that taut jaw, comes instead, at a Beverly Hills club, this: "My guys are smart. They always book me with the big Jews because they know that's where the money is." Or, to a black congregation: "If you want my support, you've got to put aside your chicken wings and malt liquor and pay me the same kind of money the big insurance companies do. Without that, I'm not even going to notice you."

"Senator," wonders his unctuous Washington head of staff (Oliver Platt), "when are you going to explain this new strategy to us?"

Alas and alack, this brilliant, corrosive sequence takes up only about a third of the film. It must be sustained by a story, and Beatty hasn't really come up with much. The whole thing is motivated (poorly) by Bulworth's own passive-aggressiveness about his death. He hires a hit person, but then changes his mind, so right away the movie has canceled out its own premise. If he wants to die, the truth-telling is firmly grounded in motive; if it's not, it's arbitrary.

Then there's the issue of taste. Obviously feeling he's earned dispensation from conventional piety in his depiction of the African American community by virtue of his ideological support of it, Beatty takes his character into the streets of Compton (on the lam from the hit man and under the wing of Halle Berry, who falls for him). This leads to the movie's boldest but most problematic stroke, Beatty's own outlandish impersonation of a young black man. Is this funny? Well, I suspect white people will laugh harder than black people, who may see the exaggerated racial posturing – backward hat, baggy shorts, that slow-talking, bad-walking, big hand-jive vocab of gesture – as patently offensive.

But the real problem is that the movie has no ultimate destination. It's really about the crazed speeches Bulworth gives, not about a story full of lame devices (a hit man who turns out not to be a hit man, an easy-to-spot revelation of the hit man's identity) and, more generally, a ramshackle, unconvincing thriller plot and a climax that's so preciously inevitable it inspires guffaws, not pain.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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