A film with an infectiously giddy sense of risk-taking and droll provocation, “Bulworth” is a black comedy in the most contemporary sense of the term. Warren Beatty’s disarmingly blunt look at a U.S. senator who suddenly starts speaking the truth about the day’s important issues — in rhyming rap cadences, no less — is an uncommonly smart, sharp and irreverent American picture, taking the form of a disillusioned liberal’s broadside against political sell-outs, corporate deceit, media manipulation, aggravated race relations and even mediocre, cynical Hollywood filmmaking. Freewheeling pic itself stands as a riposte to the sort of safe, calculated “product” that has become the norm since Beatty’s heyday, from the late ’60s through the early ’80s, while also repping a bracing reinvigoration of Beatty’s own career. The roughly $40 million grossed by both “Wag the Dog” and “Primary Colors” would seem to mark the current ceiling for explicitly politically themed pictures, and “Bulworth” will have to have luck on its side to get that far, given the early summer behemoths that will surround it in the marketplace.
Several of Beatty’s major films as a producer, director, writer and/or actor — “Bonnie and Clyde,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Parallax View,” “Shampoo” — have dealt to one extent or another with politics. But it has been 17 years since the last one, “Reds,” and just as long since he directed a movie himself. So the sense with “Bulworth” is of a creative artist finding his groove again, and, from the outset, there’s little doubt that he has a lot to say.
Happily, Beatty has chosen to express it in an exuberant, often outright comical manner. Pic shares with “Shampoo” a manic, borderline farcical approach to serious subjects, albeit one that abruptly shifts, like all of Beatty’s best work, to rueful melancholy at the end. Not everything in this chancy, densely textured social commentary hits the bull’s-eye, but the targets are delicious in themselves, and the mischievous twinkle in Beatty’s eyes suggests that, however dormant he — and the views he can be taken to represent — may have seemed in recent years, there’s a great deal of spirit and energy left there yet.
On the eve of the 1996 California primary, Sen. Jay Bulworth (Beatty) is despondent, not over his re-election chances, but over the hollow sound of his own voice and campaign slogans. He hasn’t eaten or slept for three days and, taking out a $10 million insurance policy on himself in the midst of his nervous breakdown, orders a hit on himself that will put him out of his misery for once and for all.
Boozing all the way back to Los Angeles for a final weekend of campaigning, Bulworth heads first for an appearance at an African-American church in South Central. Unable to bring himself to utter the banalities of his prepared speech, however, the neo-con Democrat tosses the text aside and begins shocking his friendly audience with brutal remarks about why politicians like himself ignore their promises to blacks (“Because you haven’t really come up with any money for my campaign”), to the chagrin of his spin-obsessed manager Murphy (Oliver Platt), the astonishment of the CNN crew covering him and a quizzical reaction from a local beauty, Nina (Halle Berry).
High from his truth-telling spree, Bulworth zips to his next stop, in Beverly Hills, where he berates the industry crowd for producing junk and is quickly ushered out after loudly stating that, “They always put the big Jews on my schedule.” More slaphappy than ever, he packs Nina, who has turned up there, too, and two of her extroverted girlfriends into his limo and has them take him, along with the unsuspecting Murphy, to the wildest after-hours club in South Central.
During a long, druggy night that’s effectively filmed in a style mixing mental disorientation, buffoonish slapstick, and sexual and cultural titillation, the old, pragmatic, Waspy Bulworth metamorphosizes into an irreverent hip-hopper who, at a big fund-raiser the next day at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, stuns his audience, along with his seen-it-all wife (Christine Baranski), by delivering an impassioned tirade rap-style. After the ever-hovering Nina comes on to him in an elevator, the newly elated politician frantically phones his contact to call off the hit, but, unbeknownst to him, the word doesn’t get through.
Fleeing a white-bread church appearance when the suspected hit man turns up, the incumbent spews more politically provocative invective during a televised debate before Murphy manages to pull the plug, whereupon Nina spirits Bulworth off to a “safe” house, her family’s place in the hood. From here, film enters its looniest and diciest stretch, as Bulworth dons homeboy duds, rediscovering his long-lost, Bobby Kennedy-era connection with minorities and the disenfranchised in the process, and heads out for another TV broadcast.
In free-associating a cappella rap, the reborn Bulworth fires off salvos at everyone and everything he believes has become compromised and corrupt, including his own Democratic Party and, most particularly, insurance companies. As one is kept guessing, even during the most outrageous moments, as to who his potential assassin may be and whether he intends to follow through with the job, pic implicitly suggests that anyone who dares to tell the truth in America will quickly be silenced.
Finally, after several days and nights of increasingly hallucinatory experiences, Bulworth is able to go to sleep, and so tired is he that he snoozes right through the election itself. Results spark an aftermath that is celebratory, then joltingly sobering.
The portrait of racial politics, one of the film’s main subjects, provides a jarring reminder of how much more rancorous the black-white dialogue has become since politicians of Bulworth’s generation first joined in to try to help bridge the gaps. At the same time, by diving right into the deep end, Beatty puts one of the more positive and optimistic spins on bi-racial relations to have been seen in an American movie in ages, and is certainly one of the first mainstream white filmmakers to have taken rap music seriously and grappled with it as the major cultural force that it is.
Beatty and Jeremy Pikser’s script knowingly references any number of behind-the-scenes aspects of public life: the poll-watching nature of politicians’ entourages, the inescapable presence of p.r. types and lobbyists, the ever-hovering media hounds, the perks of celebrity and the simultaneous loss of privacy in a fish bowl environment. Result is witty and sophisticated without being highbrow, its point of view inescapable to any audience that pays attention.
Centerscreen most of the time, Beatty is almost startlingly animated and exhilarated; rarely before has he given the impression of having so much fun as he does here. His enthusiasm is equally expressed in his energetic direction and proves contagious to Vittorio Storaro’s lively camera style and Robert C. Jones and Billy Weber’s pacey cutting.
In a cast selected with exceptional imagination, Platt stands out as the campaign manager whose life becomes an unrelieved crisis with Bulworth’s transformation. Also notable are Don Cheadle as a slick, entrepreneurial gang leader, Richard Sarafian as the grossly unhealthy go-between for the hit, and Joshua Malina as the doesn’t-know-what-hit-him campaign assistant. Former Beatty cohorts Jack Warden and Paul Sorvino are ever-reliable as a longtime associate and a shady insurance lobbyist, respectively, and activist writer-poet Amiri Baraka turns up as a homeless soothsayer.
The one insufficiently conceived character is Berry’s Nina. An equivocal figure who comes off as generically angry and tough through much of the running time, Nina seems to be along for the ride for unknown reasons at first and for negative reasons later on. The audience is given no clue as to how to feel about her, nor a way to understand why Bulworth takes her nearly everywhere. Despite Berry’s personal allure, character’s inscrutability often serves as a drain on the action.
Soundtrack is an exciting, volatile mix of rap tunes and some key, emotionally reflective orchestral strains by Ennio Morricone.