The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Dir. Brian De Palma. Starring Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Saul Rubinek

The Bonfire of the Vanities has an issue with its narration. I mean, you could make a long list of things that this movie has issues with, but the narration is what takes this picture from messy to stinky. You can smell the weakness in Michael Cristofer’s screenplay, the “but if I don’t tell them everything, they might not get it” fear that is the province of middling work. It’s not helped by Bruce Willis’ actual voice work, either, which is like listening to Sam Spade on greenies. There must be double-digit places in the film where the narration is doing heavy lifting that nobody asked it to do, but for me the most obnoxious moment of all comes when Peter Fallow (Willis) recounts the plot of the opera that Sherman McCoy (Hanks) is viewing. It’s Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Fallow goes to some lengths not just to summarize what’s going on in Don Giovanni but to tie it to McCoy’s quite serious legal issues. (Essentially neither Johnny nor Shermy want to renounce the lifestyles which have led them to condemnation.) It’s a bad play. The scene that we see from Don Giovanni is the same one that had played an important role in Amadeus six years earlier. Amadeus was a hit, and more than a hit, it went eight-for-eleven at the Oscars. The audiences who were supposed to come to Bonfire are the same ones who actually went to Amadeus; why tell them what they already know? Heck, some of the people in the audience might just know the plot of Don Giovanni well enough to connect the dots themselves. I’ll grant that this might just raise my hackles, so in case that wasn’t convincing, here’s a basically inarguable support. A character played by Andre Gregory, who is hilarious, basically summarizes the play and gives us everything we’d need to know to connect Don Giovanni to Sherman McCoy. If, at that point, someone in the audience could not draw the conclusion that Sherman McCoy is on the edge of damnation himself but refuses to repent or renounce the lifestyle that brought him there, then there’s nothing that could be done to bring that person aboard. These scenes don’t need narration, but they sure as shootin’ have narration, and that narration signifies the basic confusion that Cristofer himself seems to have with the material.

Then again, the film could have killed two superfluous birds (and apparently an incredibly grating actor) with one stone simply by getting rid of the Fallow character entirely. Aside from the fact that the novel needs him, it’s hard to know what having Fallow in the film does for it. Maybe he’s an opportunity for Brian De Palma to show off his ability to fire off a lengthy, circuitous tracking shot in the beginning of the picture? It is a bizarre opening, to say the least, one which is not really funny, and which never really comes up with statement of character more dynamic than “this person is rising from subbasement to penthouse.” It’s an awful lot of emphasis to give at the top to the movie’s…fifth- or sixth-most important character? (In any event, it’s impossible not to think about the Copa shot in Goodfellas from the same year, which is so perfect and influential that just googling it will get you a bunch of hits of basically identical articles. The lesson, as always, is that people rarely care about how technically impressive something is if effect isn’t built in.) Fallow is the first to break the story of a young Black man in a coma due to a hit-and-run, and later on meets McCoy and hears that this ’80s Gatsby had yielded the wheel to his Daisy, Maria Ruskin (Griffith). Why this character needs to be one character, or why this character ought to be audience’s way into the story are different questions entirely which Bonfire never really figures out the answers to. There’s a slouching quality to Willis’ performance, like he can never quite grasp an angle for this character that isn’t “on the floor drunk,” and more than that the story never finds a way to incorporate him as anything more than a glorified version of Jeff Goldblum’s Tricycle Man in Nashville. Much of the story of Bonfire is about the media circus which surrounds the McCoy case. It is played up by someone who I guess is basically Al Sharpton, because every Black minister with a political platform is Al Sharpton in this kind of movie. In this case it’s the verbose Reverend Bacon (John Hancock), who seems pretty adept at getting the literal Geraldo Riveras of this world to pay attention to him and funneling the money that comes from his grandstanding, but not particularly good at making material changes to the lives of his parishioners as a larger body. Even this version of ’90s racism is better at getting the point of Bonfire across in reference to the self-perpetuation of TV news tirefires than Bruce Willis is in playing the personification of the vulture press.

Bonfire is a prisoner of its narration, of its fidelity to the source material. It’s stuck with Bruce Willis’ pointless Peter Fallow. Melanie Griffith’s oleaginous Southern accent is but another example of southern California thinking it knows anything about the Southern United States. The further it gets, the more it becomes an indictment of the legal system itself, and Saul Rubinek and F. Murray Abraham, playing a deputy district attorney and the actual district attorney, respectively, creep ever closer to center stage. Morgan Freeman’s Judge White, the last sane man in New York, gives the kind of “Can’t we all just wise up and live together?” speech that tends to anchor weird midseason episodes of sitcoms. In reference to Reverend Bacon, nothing the film does is meant to give us, a presumably white audience, permission to find the concept of a Black religious politico skeezy more than Judge White condemning him. Even small roles, like Kim Cattrall’s part playing Sherman’s wife, Judy, are blown. Cattrall is lucky than Griffith is doing something with her voice even more bizarre than what she’s doing, or she’d probably be in for more criticism in this picture. (Alternately, one might wonder why the two most important women in the movie seem like distant cousins to Mork from Ork more than human beings, but I’m not sure that would even generate an interesting answer given how little the two of them seem to be working from.) There’s a lot about this movie which varies from “mediocre” to “basically bad.” But reckless optimist as I am, I think that the filmmakers probably could have salvaged this thing to “meh” if they’d had any idea what to do with Sherman McCoy.

Unlike everyone else on the planet, I don’t think casting Tom Hanks as McCoy is necessarily a bad move. In the first place, no one knew in the late eighties that Tom Hanks wasn’t going to be Jimmy Stewart, and it’s not fair to use hindsight like a magnifying glass in the sun on the casting choice that way. (This article from Keith Phipps gets into it a little more, but it is worth remembering that while Stewart could have been in The Money Pit or Philadelphia, Hanks could never have been in Bend of the River or Rear Window.) For another thing, I think that there’s value in casting people against type if the film knows why it’s doing that. Bonfire, for a stretch, is doing something interesting by putting the eternally likable Hanks in the position of the eternally loathsome stockbroker. Americans are guilty almost unanimously of idolizing the wealthy, or thinking that the wealthy are better than us because they have money. By making Hanks the stockbroker who intends to pull down nearly $2 million in commission on a single deal in a single morning, the film is challenging the audience. Try not to like this rich guy, who you’re already inclined to envy, because he looks like Tom Hanks, Bonfire says. You should find him odious, but if you root for him to pull off this deal or to get what he wants to or to continue his affair with Maria Ruskin, then you’re part of the problem with American society writ large. There’s a funny scene where Judy explains the leeching qualities of her husband’s profession to their daughter, an explanation he takes umbrage with even though it’s a better and more concise explanation than what he can speak.

Then, all of a sudden, once McCoy is involved in a hit-and-run where some Black men tried to stick him up (and Ruskin was the one behind the wheel who did the damage), the film all of a sudden can’t stop rooting for McCoy. Part of this is in service of the literal position that McCoy is not truly the one at fault; that’s true! But the film finds a way to make this character who we were previously meant to find hateful and turns him into something surprisingly close to a martyr. “Why don’t you hate the rich?” melts down so rapidly into “the rich don’t deserve all this hatred” that it almost takes your breath away. Meanwhile, there’s Tom Hanks at the center of it, still just a guy who deserves better than what he’s getting from a broken system. When he lies under oath about how he got the tape in which Ruskin says she was the one driving, the film is triumphant. Sure, he does something wrong in order to not get buried in prison. But what was he supposed to do, let the system win? The film ends with Fallow debuting his bestseller non-fiction account of the McCoy trial. We are meant to assume what happens to Ruskin; McCoy has presumably retreated into his money; Fallow struck gold; the Bronx still sucks as a place to live in. Nothing changes, Bonfire suggests in a voice that sounds like a bad imitation of Sinclair Lewis. If nothing changes, then why do we even have Bonfire to display that nothingness so loudly?

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