Monday, May 09, 2016

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Based on the novel by Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities is the story of a Wall Street investor whose life of wealth and materialism shatters after his mistress had ran over an African-American teenager in the Bronx where a district attorney and many others want to punish the man for their own selfish reasons. Directed by Brian de Palma and screenplay by Michael Cristofer, the film is an exploration of a world gone wrong where a man is being ruined as an alcoholic reporter tries to capture everything that is happening. Starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, F. Murray Abraham, Kim Cattral, Saul Rubinek, Alan King, John Hancock, Kevin Dunn, and Morgan Freeman. The Bonfire of the Vanities is a disastrously incomprehensable and outrageously bad film from Brian de Palma.

The film explores the rise and fall of a Wall Street investor whose life is shattered where he is targeted by many factions including the press, political leaders, racial factions, and religious leaders over the hit-and-run of an African-American teenager in South Bronx in which his mistress actually ran over the young man. It’s a film that has a lot to delve into as it is largely told by a washed-up, alcoholic reporter who would later turn the story into a best-selling novel where he reflects on everything he wrote during an event that would celebrate his achievement. While it is a story that explores the world of materialism, social classes, greed, power, race-baiting, and all sorts of things. It is meant to be presented as a satire where it would’ve been an intriguing idea on paper. Unfortunately, what is presented is something that sort of takes itself too seriously and doesn’t offer very much in terms of characters to care for nor a story to really be invested in.

Michael Cristofer’s script doesn’t just sensationalize things as it plays into the chaos of inhumanity not just in the way many rich, white people are portrayed but also in how minorities are depicted and how even the media and political figures are portrayed with very few that have qualities that can redeem them. While the protagonist Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) and the reporter Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) both go through some development where both of them would sort of display redemptive qualities. The way the development was written isn’t exactly smooth as both of those men aren’t good people either since McCoy is this entitled blue-blood who doesn’t think about how this incident will effect him until he realizes that there are those in the world of politics that want to fry him. His ignorance and indifference about the realities of the world would eventually not only give him a wake-up call where he does show remorse. There is a payoff to his development as he realizes that life he had with all of this money, a Park Avenue apartment, a vapid socialite for a wife, and an immoral job are all bullshit as the moment he snaps is a highlight.

The Fallow character does start off as someone who finds out about McCoy and his mistress Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith) where he gets McCoy targeted as a way to work again. Once he meets McCoy by accident where the two share a ride on the subway, though McCoy has no idea who he is talking to, where Fallow has a revelation about what he’s doing though he is still portrayed as some alcoholic schmuck. The other main characters such as Maria Ruskin, District Attorney Abe Weiss (F. Murray Abraham), and Reverend Bacon (John Hancock) don’t really have anything that makes them complex as Ruskin is a gold-digging slut from the South, Weiss is a power-hungry Jew who wants to become mayor, and the reverend is a man who uses racism for not just power but also greed. Weiss and Bacon don’t care if McCoy is really innocent while Ruskin is someone who doesn’t want to own up to anything as she’ll do anything to save her hide by aligning herself with the assistant DA Jed Kramer (Saul Rubinek). All of which would lead to this climax in which Sherman McCoy would take drastic measures for the truth to come out.

Brian de Palma’s direction is definitely a mess despite this start where it opens with a five-and-a-half minute tracking shot of Peter Fallow getting ready for this presentation in a building where it displays that sense of inventiveness in de Palma’s as well as the way he would create close-ups in some of the key events in the film such as McCoy saying he’s sorry in court. While de Palma does create some amazing images and stylistic shots that would include an intimate medium shot inside a subway where Fallow and McCoy talk about what happened where McCoy would reveal something big that would mark a change in Fallow. Those moments along with the scene of McCoy finally snapping where he grabs a shotgun and gets everyone out of his apartment are the few scenes in the film that are worth watching. It’s just a shame that de Palma was unable to really do so much more for the rest of the film where it’s not the script that lets him down. It’s just the fact that it has no real identity in what it wants to be.

It’s not just a lot of the humor and approach to satire that doesn’t connect, it’s also in the fact that de Palma couldn’t do enough to make things more engaging where the many situations get more and more ridiculous that includes this weird dinner scene between Fallow and Maria’s husband Arthur (Alan King). These scenes tend to overwhelm whatever good the film tried to do where it would have this strange climax where McCoy is finally on trial with Ruskin ready to burn him. It is then followed by this monologue from Judge Leonard White (Morgan Freeman) that feels shoehorned as to create a message over everything this movie was supposed to be about. Though White’s words do hold some resonance about the dark aspects of humanity, it is unfortunately ignored over the fact that the people who wanted McCoy fried for his crimes to come off as even worse than they already are. Overall, de Palma creates an unfunny and nonsensical film about a rich white man accused of running over an African-American teenager where everyone tries to tear him apart for their own bullshit reasons.

Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond does brilliant work with the film‘s cinematography in the way some of the interior scenes at night are light along with the look of the courtroom and the lighting for the scenes set in South Bronx as it play into that disconnect between the social classes. Editors Bill Pankow and David Ray do some fine work in the editing in trying to create some stylish cuts in the dramatic moments along a few split-screen pieces but much of it doesn‘t really work while the comedic moments don‘t hit it off editing wise. Production designer Richard Sylbert, with set decorators Joe D. Mitchell and Justin Scoppa Jr. and art directors Gregory Bolton and Peter Landsdown Smith, does fantastic work with the look of McCoy‘s lavish Park Avenue apartment home as well as the apartment that Maria would live in that actually belonged to one of Fallow‘s colleagues.

Costume designer Ann Roth does nice work with the costumes from the lavish clothes that the women wear as well as the very cheesy and silly clothes of Reverend Bacon. Sound editor Maurice Schell does terrific work with the sound to play into some of the moments at some of the social gatherings including the scene where McCoy snaps and gets rid of everyone from his home. The film’s music by Dave Grusin is pretty good for its orchestral-based score that play into the world of the rich and important though some of its attempts to create comedic-like pieces aren’t so great.

The casting by Lynn Stalmaster is superb despite the fact that many of the people who were in the film weren’t given much to do or play characters that were fully realized to the point that they just become caricatures. Notable small roles include a young Kirsten Dunst as Sherman and Judy McCoy’s young daughter Campbell and Donald Moffat as Sherman’s father as they’re among the few characters who actually show some good to the world. Other performances from Adam LaFerve as McCoy’s fellow stockbroker Rawlie Thorpe, Barton Heyman and Norman Parker as a couple of detectives meeting McCoy over the incident, Andre Gregory as an AIDS-stricken poet, Geraldo Rivera as a tabloid reporter, Clifton James as a friend of Reverend Bacon who would give Fallow the scoop, Robert Stephens as one of Fallow’s bosses, Beth Broderick as a colleague of Fallow who would reveal a key point in the film’s plot, Louis Giamblavo as an associate of the district attorney, and Kurt Fuller as McCoy’s neighbor Pollard Browning aren’t given anything to do where some are just played for laughs or as people no one can give a fuck about.

In the role of the hit-and-run victim’s mother, Mary Alice gives a very quiet performance until there’s a moment in the film which has this reveal which makes her a horrible person as it’s a real waste of Alice. Kevin Dunn is alright as McCoy’s lawyer Tom Killian as someone who tries to get McCoy to see the severity and reality of his situation. John Hancock’s performance as the Reverend Bacon is just fucking silly as this Al Sharpton-caricature that is supposed to be played for laughs but ends up being really dumb. Saul Rubinek also gives a terrible performance as assistant DA Jed Kramer as this buffoon who tries to do whatever it takes to win and help Weiss as he’s just Weiss’ bitch. Kim Cattrall is just fucking horrible as Sherman’s wife Judy as this vapid socialite who is more concerned about social statues and gatherings while trying to look and act the part of a wife as she doesn’t provide much depth except for the scene where she tells her daughter what Sherman does for a living. Alan King is wasted in his small role as Maria’s husband Alan as he only has a few scenes where the big scene he’s in during a dinner with Fallow is one of the most ridiculous as it displays some of the worst aspects of wealth and power.

F. Murray Abraham, in an un-credited role, as District Attorney Abe Weiss is just horrendous in how brash he is as it’s character that is never fleshed out and is once again a bad attempt at satire that never really connects. Morgan Freeman is excellent in his role as Judge Leonard White as one of the few characters in the film that actually stands for something where he does give this amazing monologue in the end though Freeman doesn’t go unscathed where it is kind of obvious he is wearing a bald cap in the film. Melanie Griffith is bad as Maria Ruskin as this Southern gold digger who cares more about herself than Sherman where Griffith is right for the role but is never given much to do while the script also fails her to make her compelling.

Bruce Willis’s performance as Peter Fallow is a prime example of someone just basically sleep-walking through the film. It’s a performance where Willis doesn’t do much but look and act drunk as someone who is pathetic only to be given this story where he tries to do what is right but Willis would have this smugness to the role that is just wrong for the role. Finally there’s Tom Hanks where it’s a performance that isn’t bad but it is clear he is not the right person to play Sherman McCoy. Despite the moment where his character snaps and just goes bonkers, Hanks was really unable to rise above the script’s shortcomings to make the character more engaging as well as the fact that’s kind of too likeable to play this Wall Street investor that is quite full of himself as it’s really Hanks being completely miscast.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a horrendous film from Brian de Palma. Nonsensical storylines, ugly characters, wasted talent, and a lot of inconsistency in what it wanted to be. The film isn’t just a bad satire but also a film that displays some of the worst aspects of humanity through greed, power, race-baiting, and all sorts of bullshit. In the end, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a horrific and awful film from Brian de Palma.

Brian De Palma Films: (Murder a la Mod) - (Greetings) - (The Wedding Party) - (Dionysus in ‘69) - (Hi, Mom!) - (Get to Know Your Rabbit) - Sisters - Phantom of the Paradise - Obsession - Carrie - The Fury - (Home Movies) - Dressed to Kill - Blow Out - Scarface (1983 film) - Body Double - (Wise Guys) - The Untouchables - Casualties of War - Raising Cain - Carlito's Way - Mission: Impossible - Snake Eyes - Mission to Mars - Femme Fatale - The Black Dahlia - (Redacted) - Passion (2012 film) - (Domino (2018 film))

© thevoid99 2016


Anonymous said...

I can see why Hanks may have wanted to stretch a bit, but he's always felt miscast. I don't know who could surmount the terrible adaptation though.

thevoid99 said...

I've heard a lot about this film as well as the fact that Brian de Palma and Morgan Freeman don't speak very fondly about it. The former admits to being pushed around by the studio on who to cast and such as he felt some of the people didn't work and he, like many in the film, didn't get a long with Bruce Willis who was a real shithead back then. The latter admits that the film just absolutely sucked and his part was originally meant to be white with Walter Matthau originally cast but wanted $1 million for his work and Alan Arkin was then cast for much less as I think Arkin would've been a better choice.

It is obvious he's got what it takes to do drama but I don't think he was ready and he was so not right for the role. De Palma wanted John Lithgow for the part which I think he would've knocked it out of the fucking park if they had a good script. I really need to read Julie Salmon's book about the production.

ruth said...

Boy, the cast is excellent. This sounds like one of those films worth a watch just for the cast alone, but then again perhaps not based on your review!

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-You would think. That amazing wealth of talent, a hot best-seller, and a renowned filmmaker. What could go wrong? Everything went wrong. I will say this though. It's one of those bad movies that you can watch just for the sake of just how bad it is and wondering who should've played who and such. Jack Nicholson and John Cleese were offered the rule that Bruce Willis played as I think Cleese would've been a more appropriate choice since the character was British in the book. Steve Martin and Chevy Chase were considered for the role Hanks played as that would've been more interesting.

All of this makes me want to find that book that Julie Salmon wrote about the production and de Palma was like "write everything you see and make it into a book or whatever. This film is fuckin' shit".

ruth said...

Ahah, so is this the case of 'so bad it's good'? I might give it a shot just for the cast. Well, sometimes it's a two right making it wrong y'know, great cast + great material can sometimes actually become a bad movie. In any case, you got me intrigued now.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-I will say this though. In the hands of a lesser director, it would be unwatchable. Since it's Brian de Palma, a bad Brian de Palma film is still better than a lot of other people's films.