Warren Beatty’s ”Bulworth” is all bluster and hype. It’s a tease of a satire that never really follows through on its audacious premise. Beatty, who produced and directed the film, stars as Jay Billington Bulworth, a Democratic senator from California whose face has become a frozen monument to the falsity of American politics. Campaigning before a group of African-Americans in a South Central L.A. church, Bulworth looks down at the speech he’s supposed to read, but he can’t bring himself to get the words out. Instead, he begins to speak the truth. The ugly truth. Before long, Bulworth isn’t just speaking the truth — he’s rapping it. Like Howard Beale in ”Network,” he’s become a crackpot sage, driven to preach the realities of corruption in the voice of the dispossessed.
”Bulworth” has some scathingly funny moments in its first 40 minutes or so. But having served up a compelling first act, the movie, to our shock and dismay, all but abandons its scabrous detonation of gridlock politics. Instead, it introduces soggy subplots, as Bulworth gets involved with a young black supporter (Halle Berry, playing a non-character) and tries to evade the hitman he’d hired, in the throes to despair, to assassinate him. We also get the spectacle of Warren Beatty dressing up in gansta-clown duds, which make him look like Harpo Marx impersonating Flava Flav.
Instead of taking its joke further and further, as ”Network” did, ”Bulworth” ends up shamelessly embracing the very white liberal sanctimony it had already shown to be an irrelevant con job. The film becomes a rambling high-concept comedy, a burlesque of the pure image of Warren Beatty as aging homeboy. But that image alone won’t cut it. The movie ends up saying: Here, at last, is a way out of our mess — if those nasty politicians would just acknowledge inner-city African-Americans and ”their” culture. By now, that statement is an insult to blacks, to whites, to anyone, in fact, who has watched the first part of ”Bulworth” and understood that symbolic compassion of this sort isn’t the solution, it’s part of the problem.