In the scorchingly funny political satire "Bulworth," Warren Beatty is a man possessed, a holy fool tilting at the windmills of contemporary political culture, an idiot worthy of Dostoevsky, whose compulsive, vulgar pronouncements take on the proportions of greatness the more he blathers on.
Love "Bulworth" or hate it. Laugh at it or moan out loud. But by all means see it, and celebrate the fact that a mainstream movie has been made in which something of real meaning is at stake.
Beatty -- who wrote, directed and produced -- also stars in the title role of Jay Bulworth, a Democratic senator from California who is just days away from a shoo-in re-election. A credentialed liberal -- his office is decorated with photographs of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Robert F. Kennedy -- he has held on to his office by making a series of tiny, Clintonian compromises.
As "Bulworth" opens, he is watching a few of his latest advertisements touting his opposition to affirmative action and his dedication to family values. While he watches, Bulworth dissolves into tears. He seems to be on the verge of self-destruction, and he is. After a night-long breakdown, he decides to do away with himself and hires a hit man to off him in California. And, when he returns to his home state to wrap up his campaign, he will commit political suicide as well.
For the next 72 hours, this white politician will dare to speak the truth about how race, class and politics intersect in this country. He will also fall in love, wreak havoc with the rubber-chicken circuit and go deeper and deeper behind the looking glass of contemporary segregation. And, having second thoughts, he will all this while trying to dodge the assassin he hired.
First Bulworth shocks an African-American audience at a black L.A. church by telling them that the Democratic Party could never sincerely care for a community that donates no money to the party. Then he backs over the body by mentioning malt liquor, chicken wings and O.J. in one breathtaking breath.
That's just for starters. Having met three lissome lasses at the church -- one of whom, Nina (Halle Berry), especially catches Bulworth's eye -- the senator travels to an after-hours club in Compton, a largely black neighborhood in Los Angeles. There, he discovers the joys of smoking blunts, gettin' jiggy with Nina and scratching vinyl as a rap D.J.
For the rest of "Bulworth," Beatty delivers his lines in white-boy rap, a tortured hybrid of Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Seuss. "He's rhyming. It's very disconcerting," says his aide, Murphy, played to rabbity perfection by Oliver Platt.
The best conventional comedy of "Bulworth" is delivered at the hands of Platt and his seasoned colleagues Christine Baranski (as Bulworth's ice-queen wife) and Sean Astin, who plays a cameraman with the news crew that is following the senator around. But the unconventional humor -- the truly dangerous, jaw-dropping stuff -- belongs entirely to Beatty and Bulworth.
Buried beneath their awkward rhymes are brilliant, courageous critiques of contemporary post-partisan politics, in which Republicans and Democrats are discernible only by slightly different shades of centrism. As his name suggests, Bulworth is a great beast barreling through the china shop run by media and politics; he's a giant, antic Id running amok in the Great American Dream Factory.
Watching Beatty deliver bad poetry -- at one point dressed in baggy shorts, sunglasses and a ski cap -- is a painful but curiously hypnotic experience.
It's exhilarating to watch one of his generation's prettiest actors sacrifice his vanity for the larger point.
Whether it's the sight gag of Beatty in a low-rider car or a surreal scene in which he berates Hollywood producers for churning out exploitative dreck ("How much money do you guys really need?"), "Bulworth" is a powerful, sometimes powerfully uncomfortable, exercise in Beatty's un-self-conscious honesty.
"Bulworth" doesn't always succeed. The film is unremittingly profane -- Beatty's idea being that the real obscenity lies in our failed social promise -- which will turn off many filmgoers who otherwise would appreciate its trenchant comedy. Its timing and emotional tone comes undone only to be barely recovered again.
But these flaws magnify the movie's transgressive power. "Bulworth" isn't satisfied to be subversive politically; it subverts the very idea of the big Hollywood movie.
"Bulworth" features a satisfying, "Wizard of Oz"-like climax, but the screwy wildness comes to an end with startling solemnity. The film pays homage to fallen heroes in a series of unmistakable and penetrating visual references, among them a quick shot echoing a famous photograph taken at the Lorraine Motel just after King was shot.
But more than anything, "Bulworth" is a meditation on the last California campaign of Robert Kennedy. "Don't be a ghost," a mysterious stranger played by Amiri Baraka keeps reminding the senator. "Be a spirit."
From the time Bulworth touches down in L.A., to his empathic connection to the people he meets and the movie's haunting final shot, it's not Kennedy's ghost that haunts "Bulworth," it's his spirit.
Starring Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Don Cheadle
Directed by Warren Beatty
Rated R (pervasive strong language and some drug content)
Released by 20th Century Fox
Sun Score *** 1/2
Pub Date: 5/22/98