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‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 21, 1990

"The Bonfire of the Vanities" has become a much smaller conflagration, a pilot light of the inanities in Brian De Palma's whitewashed screen adaptation. Funny, but in softening Tom Wolfe's scathing satire, the director has become one with the buffoons Wolfe scored in his bestseller. He has not only filed Wolfe's teeth but stuck his tail between his legs.

A calamity of miscasting and commercial concessions, this "Bonfire" is fed with twigs. Tom Hanks, poor dear, seems more like a lamb led to the slaughter than a "master of the universe," as he calls himself in the role of Sherman McCoy. Here the obnoxious young bond trader is no longer a victim of his own arrogance and greed but a pawn, mistreated by his sluttish mistress and shrewish wife and misunderstood by his WASP father. And since nobody wants to see a marshmallow like Hanks get roasted, the ending is not Wolfe's but Hollywood's.

When the story begins, the callow Sherman is making millions a day in commissions and reveling in an illicit relationship with Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith). The trouble begins when he and Maria, an overbearing Southern gold digger, are involved in a hit-and-run in the Bronx. Maria and Sherman are on their way back to her apartment from the airport when they make a wrong turn into the ghetto and, terrified, back up over a black teenager.

The two decide not to report the incident, but reporter Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) gets wind of the story. Fallow, a minor, not very interesting character in the book, becomes a principal, not very interesting character in the movie. An affable alcoholic and womanizer, the tabloid journalist is in danger of losing his job when he is handed the story by an unscrupulous religious leader (John Hancock), who plans to use the hit-and-run to rile the black community. The case becomes even more of a political football when the district attorney, a Jewish hysteric who is running for mayor, sees minority votes in prosecuting Sherman.

And so the once-mighty multimillionaire is brought to his knees. His only allies are the remorseful Fallow and an honest Judge White (Morgan Freeman), who seems to have walked off the set of a Frank Capra movie. White, who was Kovitsky in the book, becomes a sympathetic black judge here, one of a few fortunate alterations. Not surprisingly, Freeman offers one of the film's finest performances, though even he can't finesse the clumsy moral coda that advises us: "Go home and be decent."

"Go home and be decent." Michael Cristofer, who wrote the screenplay, gives us a morality romp, not a comedy of errors. In Wolfe's story, all of New York was held accountable, but De Palma and Cristofer seem to blame the woes of the '80s mostly on the press, black rabble-rousers and women. As usual, the white male floats like fat to the top of the melting pot.

It comes as no surprise that De Palma, the maker of "Body Double" and "Casualties of War," would serve up a tart like Maria Ruskin. The role is a caricature of a floozy, and Griffith, her accent thick as blackstrap molasses, just oozes and drips all over the screen.

Sherman's selfish wife, played through the roof by Kim Cattrall, is what Wolfe called a social X-ray, a wafer-thin doyenne who spends her life weeping on her Exercycle and making life miserable for her sweet-natured husband. At least Cattrall seems to know how she wants to play the shrew, which is more than Willis can say of acting the scribe. With no one to play against, the amiable wisecracker is not Fallow but lame.

There are a myriad of great small performances in the movie, like Hancock's boisterous work as the rabble-rousing Reverend Bacon and Alan King's deliciously tacky turn as Maria's nouveau riche husband. Indeed, if character actors and acrobatic camera angles could make a movie, then "The Bonfire of the Vanities" might lick the sky with yellow flames. But instead it's its own funeral pyre. Fans of the book will despise it, others will just find it tries too hard. If you want to see the masters of the universe chastened, see "Wall Street." This is a story of redeemed white guys.

"The Bonfire of the Vanities" is rated R and contains sensuality and profanity.

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