The first 4 minutes and 53 seconds of The Bonfire of the Vanities, though obscured by the opening credits, constitute what is very likely the most dazzlingly elaborate, meticulously timed single-camera shot since the opening (also obscured by credits) of Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil. Seeing Bonfire in a theater, you could only drop back in your seat and wonder if you really saw what you thought you saw and, if so, how director Brian De Palma brought it off. On videotape, you can rewind it and slow it down. And the magic, or at least the boldness of the conceit, doesn’t fade: In one unbroken movement, the camera trails the alcoholic writer Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) and a legion of sycophants from a garage, through an underground tunnel, down long corridors, in and out of an elevator, and on to another floor where the media await him.

Shortly after, there is a funny sight gag concerning an attempt by Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) to walk his recalcitrant dog. Also amusing is Kim Cattrall as Sherman’s prissy wife, Judy. John Hancock is properly grotesque as the conniving Reverend Bacon, a mixture of the Reverend Al Sharpton and Little Richard, and Alan King is gruffly persuasive as the husband of Sherman’s mistress, Maria, played by Melanie Griffith, who persuasively but fleetingly models black lace and pearls. So much for the good things in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

The rest is like a terrible accident. You are powerless to stop it, but you can’t quite avert your eyes. Happily, with video you can fast-forward. And video is definitely how most people will be seeing this movie, which is now renowned as the film catastrophe of 1990.

In fact, few recent movies will be remembered as long as The Bonfire of the Vanities, which cost $45 million to make and brought in $15.4 million at the box office. Debacles of such magnitude have their own kind of immortality. At this year’s Oscar ceremony, Billy Crystal joked that the film was edited by Edward Scissorhands, although the editing is the last thing you’d want to complain about. But nobody in Hollywood seems willing to place the blame on the shoulders of power brokers — in this instance, producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters and the agents who doomed the film before a frame was shot by imposing Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis on the project.

An agreeable light-comedy star, Hanks is egregiously miscast as Wall Street’s Master of the Universe; he’s like an economics undergrad playing at big-time finance. You ought to care about what happens to him when he inadvertently kills a black man in the Bronx and is stripped of his wife, mistress, job, and personality by a rapacious press and a corrupt city government. Yet you don’t care about him. As the comedy congeals, Hanks is left to twist in a very bad script with only a foolish and increasingly empty grin to cover his nakedness. By signing Willis, and paying him the millions his meager abilities inexplicably command, the filmmakers were obliged to expand the role of a minor character in Tom Wolfe’s corrosive novel.

Screenwriter Michael Cristofer wasn’t up to the task. The opening sequence may be the best thing in the film, but it also embodies everything wrong here. We watch Willis stumbling through waves of photographers, press agents, and admirers for nearly five minutes in a shot that obviously required a lot of planning but has no connection to anything that follows. You’d think Willis’ salary might have warranted a little research concerning writers, alcoholics, or both. Instead, he just brought along his usual smirk.

De Palma tries to compensate for the shallowness of the performances and of Cristofer’s script with baroque camera angles, including overhead shots, which look downright silly on the small screen. But he clearly has no control of the material — and the ending absolutely boggles the mind. The film, like the book, winds up in a courtroom. As the judge, Morgan Freeman rises from his bench and, with all the conviction of Nancy Reagan battling drugs, instructs everyone in the court to go home and be decent. What were Cristofer and De Palma thinking? It seems almost inconceivable that the same filmmaker who designed the delirious opening was satisfied with that ending or, more to the point, the hollowness in between. D

The Bonfire of the Vanities
  • Movie
  • 126 minutes