WHAT TO DO with Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," a satirical cluster bomb of a novel, which caught just about every conceivable New York social or racial group, from Bronx blacks to white co-op owners?
Director Brian DePalma doesn't do anything with the book at all. He just makes his own movie. While it keeps the "Bonfire" title, the film throws Wolfe's downer ending out of court, reinvents three of the story's most significant characters (not counting weak-chinned Tom Hanks as strong-chinned Ivy Leaguer Sherman McCoy) and replaces the novel with a broad, almost-pratfalling black comedy.
The tone of the film is a vanity of its own. With the help of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (a man who never met a dizzying angle he didn't like), DePalma limbos below his subjects, soars above them, encircles them and brings the lens in close so characters' faces look like gargoyles. This is comic-book coverage. If the strength of the novel was the interplay between Wolfe's dry-white reportage and the sensational, tabloid-tacky humorous events he wrote about, "Vanities"-the-movie just goes for the tacky jugular.
The movie, however, does have crowd-appealing star presence: Melanie Griffith (as a ditsy, malaprop-happy Southerner), Bruce Willis (a sleazy, alcoholic reporter) and Morgan Freeman (as a freewheeling Bronx judge). In terms of what is asked of them, they certainly do their job. Also in the film's favor, "Vanities" at least preserves the novel's fatalistic sense of momentum -- McCoy's spiraling, rapid descent from Manhattan millionaire to manslaughter defendant in a Bronx criminal court.
That descent begins when Hanks and mistress Griffith take a wrong turn in the Bronx. Hassled by two black youths, they escape in a panic, accidentally knocking down one of the assailants. The victim, just before slipping into a life-threatening coma, recalls Hanks's Mercedes-Benz and the first letter of his license plate. Add to this incident the scoop-hungry ambitions of Willis, a hard-drinking reporter on a descent of his own, the political agendas of district attorney F. Murray Abraham and rabble-rousing black preacher John Hancock, as well as the racially explosive atmosphere of New York, and it makes for a volatile, black-versus-white circus trial.
DePalma has enough courage to lampoon blacks and whites (he wouldn't have much material to work with otherwise). But he makes Freeman play what was, in the book, a Jewish judge, so that a black man delivers the politically sensitive final decision. He also injects a nauseating thumbs-up message about America's justice system. A didactic passage of bunk, it's probably the last thing Wolfe wanted to say. But in a major movie, it seems to be the first thing one has to say.
THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (R) -- Area theaters.