Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (Twentieth Century Fox) is all bluster and hype. It’s a tease of a satire that introduces a genuinely audacious, can-you-top-this premise and then, to our shock and dismay, proceeds to do next to nothing with it. Beatty, who produced and cowrote the picture in addition to directing it, stars as Jay Billington Bulworth, a Democratic senator from California who favors blood red neckties but whose face has become a frozen white monument to the complacent falsity of American politics. To call Bulworth corrupt would be accurate, but also beside the point. He’s one screw in a broken machine — a system ruled by money that’s funneled in from the corporations and special interests. The money controls who gets elected, and, therefore, it controls the people it elects.
A few weeks before the 1996 primaries, Bulworth, sleepless, rumpled, and malnourished, sits alone in his office, listening to one of his bogus television ads. He’s crying, and we can see why: He’s a man whose core has been burnt away by lies. A little later, he stands at the pulpit of a church in South Central L.A. and looks down at the speech he’s supposed to read, but he can’t bring himself to utter the words. Instead, he begins to speak…the truth. The ugly truth. He tells the congregation of African Americans that politicians don’t care about them — and, indeed, that they never will, unless ”[you] put down that malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind somebody other than a running back who stabs his wife.” Later, at a party for the Hollywood elite, he announces that ”they always put the big Jews on my schedule” and that as a result, he’s required to include a line criticizing Louis Farrakhan.
This stuff is meant to be funny and wounding (it’s both), and it prepares us for the biggest jolt of all: Bulworth enters a black nightclub and, as if possessed, begins not just to speak the truth but to rap it. Has he gone mad? Is he experiencing a nervous breakdown or a flight into ecstasy? All of the above. Like Howard Beale in Network (the movie’s obvious paradigm), Bulworth has become a crackpot sage, driven to preach the realities of corruption in the voice of the dispossessed.
Bulworth doesn’t sound like a real rapper, and he isn’t supposed to. He’s meant to be an uptight white guy — a guy without rhythm — trying to get down and jiggy wit it. At a fund-raiser, Bulworth’s rap is quite amusing, especially when he talks about politicians and their groupies and works in the phrase ”nappy dugout.” Yet there’s a lingering sloppiness to this scene as well: Though it’s built into the movie that Beatty, as a rapper, sounds closer to John McCain than Snoop Doggy Dogg, the actor is so inept at the form that he can barely keep his raps synched to the drum track. As a result, we’re left embarrassingly aware that it’s not just Jay Bulworth who’s appearing before us as an oxymoronic funk-WASP jester. It’s Warren Beatty himself.
In Bulworth, the hero’s desperation to speak the truth by rapping it gets all tangled up with Beatty’s desperation to connect with a movie audience that’s forgotten him (or that’s young enough not to know who he is). That, I think, is what accounts for the bizarre and deadly turn the movie takes. Having served up a compelling first act, Bulworth all but abandons its scabrous detonation of contemporary gridlock politics. It becomes a rambling high-concept comedy, a burlesque of the image of Warren Beatty as aging homeboy.
Sadly, the ultimate subject of Bulworth isn’t politics at all. It’s the clandestine vanity of Beatty’s finally daring to make himself look ridiculous. Instead of taking its joke further and further, as Network did, the film retreats from its satirical brashness and gets mired in soggy subplots: Bulworth’s romantic involvement with a young black supporter (Halle Berry, playing a noncharacter); his efforts to evade the hitman whom he’d hired, while in the throes of despair, to assassinate him. Along the way, he hangs out in the inner city, dresses up in gangsta-clown duds (he looks like Harpo Marx impersonating Flavor Flav), and ”becomes” black.
What’s excruciating about this turn of events, apart from its sheer meander, is that the movie, having (incisively) diagnosed a political system beholden to absolutely nothing but money, ends up shamelessly embracing the very white liberal sanctimony it had already shown to be irrelevant. The film says: Here, at last, is a way out of our mess — if politicians would just acknowledge inner-city African Americans and ”their” culture. By now, that statement is an insult to blacks, to whites, to anyone who has watched the first 40 minutes of Bulworth and understood that symbolic compassion of this sort isn’t the solution, it’s part of the problem.