Warren Beatty is claiming that he got Bulworth made, basically, by not telling anybody at Fox what it was really about. I believe it. As the saying goes, they don’t make them like this anymore.

“They” are Hollywood, of course. Peter Biskind’s new book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, chronicles in detail the story of cutting-edge American filmmaking in the 1970s, arguing that those years were a rare time when the director held sway in Hollywood, enjoying the luxury of calling the shots against the studios. A key figure in Biskind’s study is Beatty himself, who ram-rodded Bonnie and Clyde through the production process, introducing a new, European-style film grammar in Hollywood. But by the early 1980s, the era of The Cotton Club and Heaven’s Gate, the fed-up executives found it within their rights to discipline their prodigal sons, returning the balance of power to the studio boardroom, where they felt it belonged.

It’s easy for someone of my generation (age: 28) not to realize that Beatty was a pivotal figure in that tumultuous period, given that his more recent appearances on-screen have been few and far between. Consider his post-Reds resume: Ishtar. Dick Tracy. Bugsy. Love Affair. At best, his work has been what you might call “interesting.” And at worst it’s unwatchable, a distressing case of aging Hollywood losing touch with what film can be.

Certainly none of Beatty’s recent projects could have hinted at the unhinged, exuberantly reckless and recklessly delightful new political parable that is Bulworth. If it’s a miracle that Beatty got this film made, it’s equally astonishing that it’s as good as it is. Bulworth is a headstrong dervish of a film, caroming this way and that from high comedy to lowbrow urban potboiler to impassioned tract. It’s two or three films all running at the same time, unafraid of offending and unashamed of being called naive. At heart, it’s a crazy-quilt fantasy dealing with the ideological crisis of American politics, racial divisions, and the continued subservience of the American lower class to the whims of big business.

Beatty directs himself as Jay Billington Bulworth, a long-incumbent California senator who’s wrapping up his 1996 campaign for re-election. Screening his own insipid campaign ads (in an office lit and dressed Godfather-style by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis), Bulworth is driven to depression by his own ingratiating persona. “We stand at the doorstep of the next millennium,” goes the vapid speech that he’s expected to deliver time and again to constituents over the weekend. It’s too much to bear for a politician who’s collapsing under the weight of his own political savvy. He’s clambered to the top of the world by selling his soul to the devil — who comes, in this film, in the guise of big business and corporate lobbyists.

Bulworth puts himself in the pocket of a huge insurance company, and scores a $10 million life insurance policy, payable to his daughter. He takes out a contract on his own life, with the stipulation that he be knocked off before the weekend is over. Sleepless and miserable to the point of delirium, Bulworth amiably hits the campaign trail in Los Angeles, giddy in the confidence that he’s breaking out of the political machine. In an appearance at a black church, Bulworth scraps his speech and admits that the Democratic party just doesn’t care about the African-American community. Stirring up the crowd with a grin and a shrug, he explains that the politicians are being held hostage by big business, which would just as soon pretend the inner city doesn’t exist. And anyway, where are the campaign contributions from lower-class black America? Case closed. “What are you gonna do,” Bulworth taunts. “Vote Republican?”

So his campaign advisors (including a seething, confused Oliver Platt) contort themselves into a helpless semblance of spin control as the senator cuts a swath of destruction through his own campaign. Arriving at a fundraiser for the entertainment community, Bulworth’s told that Lew Wasserman and Sid Scheinberg, giants of studio politics, have already left — but plenty of partygoers remain, and Bulworth cheerfully unloads on them about what a load of “crap” Hollywood movies are and praises his people for putting “the big Jews” on his schedule.

It gets stranger and stranger. A striking black woman (Halle Berry) sees Bulworth speak at the church and follows him, apparently curious to see what makes him tick. More than a little pleased with himself, Bulworth laps up her attention. He accompanies her to a nightclub where he dances wildly and, bizarrely, starts rapping. The politician thus discovers a new mode of communication, which he appropriates for a luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire (scandalizing his staid wife). Bulworth’s stirring the pot, and his profane, tell-it-like-it-is style is starting to catch on with the populace. Significantly, the senator has found a reason to go on living. But there’s still that little problem of Bulworth’s suicide contract, and the Italian guy with dark glasses who’s been dogging his every move …

It’s not easy to convey the mood of this film. It works expertly in a movie theater that’s packed to the gills and echoing with laughter. It’s probably best described as farce, revolving around the sweetly sincere presence of Beatty, who’s a terrible rapper but a cheerfully self-deprecating screen presence. Beatty’s hip-hop politico is over-the-top — but how else to parody the down-home verbal stylings of a Bill Clinton, or the grandfatherly ease of a Ronald Reagan? Most importantly, Beatty seems eager to parody himself, including his status as aging loverboy and his giddy vision of pain and exuberance in black culture. It’s an inspired performance, teetering on the brink of the abyss.

The whole film seems poised on that same edge. Bulworth looks like it underwent something more than a tune-up at the eleventh hour, with mismatched edits and out-of-sync dialogue indicating much post-production tweaking. It’s held together by scotch tape and rubber cement, with a big assist from the propulsive rap soundtrack that lays a blistering gloss over the ragged seams. Bulworth notes that rap music is a powerful cultural voice, and is a great example of how a serious pop soundtrack can sustain a film’s here-and-now mood — and its credibility. Ennio Morricone’s evocative inserts are more subtle punctuation, but it’s the rap songs that really propel this picture from episode to episode.

It’s a given that Beatty is open for criticism. His vision of inner-city Los Angeles is pretty beat, with street kids running drugs and packing heat, white cops busting their chops for no good reason, and smug crack dealers pontificating about how they’re the real businessmen of the ‘hood. But a “realistic” version of life in that neighborhood would be far too heavy-handed for Bulworth, which deals unapologetically in caricatures.

It’s also a little strange to watch Jay Billington Bulworth develop a fascination with the surface of black culture that can only parallel Warren Beatty’s. Beatty, of course, has long been one of Hollywood’s most famous liberals, and his obvious outrage over what’s become of American politics helps shape the whole of Bulworth into something more than its patchwork parts. Beatty’s film looks even better when you compare it to the relatively lifeless stuff that has passed for political satire recently — the smart but self-satisfied Wag the Dog, the toothless Primary Colors, or even the Sisyphean journalism of Michael Moore’s The Big One.

Bulworth is a roundhouse punch aimed at Washington’s complacent liberals, urging them to remember what it meant to work to change the system, rather than just to fit in. It’s also meant to raise the ire of voters, who aren’t likely to have any real choice at the polls in 2000. If Bulworth doesn’t have a lasting impact on the American electorate, it is Warren Beatty’s gift to Hollywood. If it can inspire other studio filmmakers to remember what it used to mean to make movies with a social conscience, well, wouldn’t that be something to see?

Directed by Warren Beatty
Written by Beatty and Jeremy Pikser
Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro
Production Design by Dean Tavoularis
Starring Beatty, Halle Berry, and Oliver Platt
USA, 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1

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