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'Bulworth': Radically Correct

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 1998

  Movie Critic

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
Viewers of every political stripe-from froth-mouthed fiscal conservatives to pork-barrel pinkos-may all squirm equally at the uncomfortable humor and hard-edge wit of "Bulworth," the splendid and splenetic political satire from director, producer, co-writer and star Warren Beatty.

The film, while radical in its own way, drives so far beyond "leftist"-which some have dubbed it-that political labels are no longer discernible in the rearview mirror. It's daring, deliberately offensive and, for a comedy, it has far more ideas in it than actual laughs, but Beatty manages to pull it off by sheer force of will, clarity of vision and an effervescent performance that rivals his best work.

Beatty plays Jay Billington Bulworth, an incumbent U.S. senator in the days leading up to the 1996 California primary. Despondent and suicidal, Bulworth sits in a darkened office rewatching video after video of his campaign commercials with the maddening slogan, "We stand at the doorstep of a new millennium," boring into his-and your-head.

Too craven to actually kill himself, he hires an assassin to do the job during a final weekend campaign swing through Los Angeles. While there, however, Bulworth meets a black Compton resident, Nina (Halle Berry), whose startling beauty jolts him out of his funk. Simultaneously liberated by the prospect of his own demise, he abandons the blather of stump speeches for the truth, daring to acknowledge for the first time in his life that politicians (including himself) act on expediency rather than principle. The thrill of newfound honesty, coupled with the exhilaration of an incipient love, convince him that suicide was a mistake, and he decides to call off the hit.

Easier said than done, of course. The story, which seems momentarily about to head in the direction of farcical romantic comedy, swerves sharply toward the dark burlesque of caustic social criticism. With his homegirl in tow, the senator bolts from his baffled handlers (Oliver Platt and Joshua Malina) and proceeds to shock not only the L.A. bourgeoisie but the nation, courtesy of a tag-along C-SPAN camera crew (Sean Astin, Laurie Metcalf and Wendell Pierce) with an increasingly obscene and acidic series of public rap monologues excoriating the status quo. (The movie's funniest sight gag is the image of Beatty in baggy hip-hop shorts, wrap-around shades and skull cap, hanging with an underage gang of South Central street kids.)

Here's just how extremist "Bulworth" is. It drops the name of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton and the scarier-yet bugaboo of "socialism" with equal regularity. It manages to equate lobbying with murder. And it even has the cojones to bite the hand that feeds it, attacking Hollywood not for the moral decay of society, but simply for making so many awful movies.

Nevertheless, beneath its astringent and cynical exterior beats a pure and idealistic heart that is almost biblical in its corniness. Love one another. The love of money is the root of all evil. The gods help them that help themselves. These are some of the root revolutionary notions that "Bulworth" espouses. Beatty's character even comes across as a quasi-Christ figure, shepherding the societal lepers and outcasts to salvation.

Occasionally, the potential arrogance of a white man co-opting the black idiom comes dangerously close to condescension, but Bulworth ultimately registers not as a sneering manipulator of a culture that doesn't belong to him, but as a cipher onto whom the hopes of the disenfranchised can be projected. The name "Bulworth" itself suggests a value of zero, a blank devoid of personhood whose Everyman status is reinforced when he is mistaken for both Clint Eastwood and George Hamilton.

He's everybody and nobody, a hero and a martyr, both black and white.

That's the real subversive mantra of "Bulworth," a funny and tragic tour de force for Warren Beatty. Not "Off the pigs!" but perhaps the even more frightening "We are each other."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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