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Days of De Palma (Part 10): The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Well, I’d certainly heard of The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the most famous flops in movie history, but I’d never before seen it.  This was one of the movies I was most curious to see as part of my journey through the films of Brian De Palma.  Was the film truly as bad as I’d heard??

In the opening minutes, I thought perhaps the general view of this film was wrong.  The movie opens with a gorgeous opening shot, as we watch a sped-up version of a full day of a city unfold from the point of view atop a tall skyscraper.  It’s a beautiful image and a clever one.  So far so good!  Then we jump into a staggeringly impressive five-minute-long continuous tracking shot.  This jaw-droppingly audacious shot follows a drunk Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) as he staggers in and out of rooms, down hallways, in and out of an elevator, and eventually into an enormous ballroom where he is supposed to be making a speech.  Brian De Palma’s cinematic style and skill is on full display with this sequence.  I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult this must have been to stage and to shoot.  It’s a wonderful sequence, hugely impressive.

The problem is that it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the movie!  This incredible opening sequence makes it feel like the story we’re about to watch is that of Bruce Willis’ character, the author Peter Fallow.  But the film that follows isn’t Fallow’s story at all, it’s that of the hapless rich white finance-guy Sherman McCoy (played by Tom Hanks).  So while I was initially impressed by this opening sequence, as the film progressed I came to see it more and more as a complete waste of time, an empty exhibition of style over substance.

It doesn’t help that the next 45 minutes or so of the film, after that crazy five-minute tracking shot, contain some of the most haplessly amateurish filmmaking of Mr. De Palma’s career (at least what I have seen of it so far).  When we first meet Sherman McCoy, it’s in a painfully failed comedic sequence in which he is trying to sneak out of his apartment that he shares with his wife, Judy (Kim Cattrall) so he can call his mistress Maria (Melanie Griffith).  Sherman uses taking the dog for a walk as his excuse, but the dog doesn’t go out in the rain, so then we cut to Sherman dragging his unconscious dog through the rain.  It’s supposed to be funny but it is so painfully unfunny that I just winced.  Between this and the entirety of Wise Guys (click here for my review), it is clear to me that Brian De Palma should not do comedy!

But things get even worse when Sherman and his mistress Maria take a wrong turn and wind up in a bad neighborhood in the Bronx.  This is the catalyst for the whole story, as they wind up running over a black young man, an event which quickly unravels Sherman’s privileged life.  But the entire sequence in which Sherman and Maria drive through the Bronx is absolutely horrifying to watch.  The depiction of this “bad neighborhood” is so over-the top, presented as a run-down war zone, while evil music plays on the soundtrack, that I wished it was a joke.  In fact, it reminds me quite a lot of the similar sequence in National Lampoon’s Vacation, where the white family’s accidental detour into a “dangerous” black neighborhood IS presented as a joke!  Here, though, it is a staggeringly racist depiction of a black neighborhood.  And let me be clear: I have nothing against the idea of a film depicting a rich, sheltered white person being frightened by going into a poor black neighborhood.  I wouldn’t agree with that character’s perception, but a film could make a powerful statement by depicting that.  But what we have here isn’t a depiction of Sherman and Maria’s fear.  No, the sequence is staged — with scary music and everything — so that the black neighborhood is depicted as a legitimate source of fear because of the fearsome, scary black people people who live there.  It’s really ugly.

The sad thing is that in the film’s second half there are glimpses of how this could have been a good film.  As the film expands its focus, and we see how the case against Sherman gets widened into a massive story, we get to see all the different political players who wind up involved in the story, few of whom are noble.  We see the politicians and the lawyers and the judge and the reporters and the cops and the religious leaders, and on and on.  I can see similarities with the recent Gone Girl, in the way this film explores how an accusation can spiral into a massive media firestorm.  And I can see similarities to Martin Scorsese’s great The Wolf of Wall Street in the way this film shines an unflinching light on the rich, spoiled, believe-they-are-above-it-all rich white Wall Street types.  Unfortunately, The Bonfire of the Vanities is far too ham-handed to be nearly as good as either of those films.

There are some great individual scenes in the film’s second half.  Morgan Freeman’s first scene (as a beleaguered but apparently honest judge) is phenomenal, as is F. Murray Abraham’s first scene as the D.A., Abe Weiss, who wants to use the conviction of Sherman to make political hay and advance his campaign for mayor.  I was also intrigued by the fiery reverent character, Reverend Bacon (played by John Hancock).

Unfortunately, though those individual moments kept me awake through the film’s second half, the movie is never able to regain the momentum lost in the terrible first half.  Individual bad moments keep derailing the whole thing.  Tom Wolfe’s late-in-the-film appearance as a poet telling Sherman McCoy to repent is a little too on the nose for my taste.  Though next to Morgan Freeman’s ridiculous final scene it feels like a model of subtlety.  I read on-line that Mr. Freeman’s final speech was added in late in the game, and it feels like it.  His summary of the moral of the film (“you have to be decent”) is overly simplistic, treating the audience like children.

The film doesn’t really have a focus.  Is this a movie about critiquing the sheltered lives of rich white people?  Is this a movie about the way our society loves to tear people down?  Is this a movie about the way the media can fan the flames of a small story, blowing it all out of proportion?  The Bonfire of the Vanities tries to be all of those things, and winds up being none of them.  A number of great actors are entirely wasted.  The whole film feels like a shaggy mess, as though nobody quite knew what the heck they were doing when putting this movie together.

The Bonfire of the Vanities certainly isn’t one of the worst movies I have ever seen.  It’s not even the worst of the ten Brian De Palma movies I have seen so far.  (That would easily be Wise Guys.)  But it is a pretty complete failure, a waste of an interesting premise and a talented assemblage of men and women both in front of and behind the camera.

Oh well.  On to the next one!

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986) Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987) Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989).

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