Friday, April 20, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.17: Brian De Palma's The Bonfire of the Vanities

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 7 (D-)

“How bad could it be?” That’s inevitably the question that comes up when approaching the biggest bomb in a great director’s career. 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities was probably a doomed production from the get-go: Tom Wolfe’s original novel was acclaimed but considered unfilmable. But with Brian De Palma at the helm, eager to make a great film and a commercial hit, it shouldn’t have been this bad. De Palma needed another hit after Casualties of War bombed at the box office, and an adaptation of one of the most cutting satirical novels of the 80s seemed like a good fit for the frequently satirical director. Yet The Bonfire of the Vanities is extraordinary in its miscalculation, miscasting, and tone-deafness, and the worst film of De Palma’s long career.

Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) is a Wall Street investor with a good home, a good family, and a good job. He is one of the “masters of the universe”. But one night, he and his mistress Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith) take a wrong turn and end up in the Bronx, where they are approached by two black teenagers. Frightened, they take off, running over one of the men. Just as the case looks like it should blow over, washed-up alcoholic journalist Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) does a report on it. As the media gets hold of the story and the self-righteous, opportunistic Reverend Bacon (John Hancock) cries racism, the opportunistic Assistant D.A. Jed Kramer (Saul Rubinek) and his boss Abe Weiss (F. Murray Abraham) decide to crank up the investigation. Now Sherman has been caught, humiliated, and vilified. But when Fallow finds reason to believe that it was Maria, rather than Sherman, who was driving the car, he tries to clear Sherman’s name.

Before I proceed in eviscerating this movie, I will note that there is exactly one good scene. In the impressive opening scene, De Palma and ace cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond utilize a 5 minute-long tracking shot that follows Willis’ drunken journalist as he arrives to the premier of his new book based on the events in the film. The camera follows Willis through the parking garage, the barrage of media, into an elevator, and finally onto a stage. All the way along he drinks, ignores the raves of his fans and admirers, drinks, hits on a young girl, drinks, eats a platter of salmon off a waiter’s cart, and drinks. It’s not a perfect scene- some of it is overplayed, and trying to fit Fallow’s book title The Real McCoy and the Forgotten Lamb into a conversational rhythm is fruitless- but it mostly suits the satirical tone the film is going for, and Willis’ drunken disinterest in the proceedings is appropriate and funny. Then the rest of the movie starts.

The Bonfire of the Vanities was such a critical and commercial bomb that it inspired a compulsively readable chronicle of its production and failure, Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy. The book highlights every bad decision made by De Palma, the producers, and the screenwriter in terms of casting. The characters in Wolfe’s original novel are so vivid even in their description that it seems impossible to screw up their casting too badly. Sherman McCoy is an arrogant, privileged, morally ambiguous WASP. Peter Fallow is a cynical, alcoholic British journalist in America (modeled on Christopher Hitchens, perhaps?). Maria Ruskin is a smoldering temptress. Judge Leonard White is no-nonsense and tough.

Yet The Bonfire of the Vanities miscasts all of these roles all the same. De Palma has since stated that John Lithgow would likely have been a more suitable fit for McCoy than the eternally likable Hanks (A.V. Club writer Nathan Rabin’s suggestion of William Hurt isn’t bad either). Hanks is wholly unbelievable in the role, his worst performance next to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and it’s impossible to believe in his struggle. The decision was made to make Sherman McCoy more likable to audiences, but that erodes the effectiveness of the satire. Hanks would give great dramatic performances in the following years (Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan), but he can’t do anything with this role. It’s a case of trying to please everyone and pleasing no one.

John Cleese and, after the role was Americanized, Jack Nicholson, turned down the Peter Fallow role, leading to Bruce Willis looking bored and sleepy throughout. He’s effective in the opening scene, but when he brings zero energy to the rest of the film it kills the narrative drive. His lazy, often expository narration doesn’t help matters. De Palma and company wanted to replicate the sharp tone of the book with Fallow’s narration, but either something was lost in translation of Willis’ delivery kills it dead. It isn’t Harrison Ford forced to narrate Blade Runner bad, but it’s still pretty terrible.

As miscast as these two are, they don’t compare to the unfathomable awfulness of Melanie Griffith’s performance as Maria Ruskin. The role was offered to everyone from Michelle Pfeiffer (still at the top of her game) to Lena Olin before coming down between box-office draw Griffith and a young, unknown actress by the name of Uma Thurman (whose audition reportedly killed). Hanks was uncomfortable with the 19-year-old Thurman as his mistress, and Griffith was still a star, so the decision seemed easy. But the Melanie Griffith of Body Double, Something Wild, and Working Girl is nowhere to be found in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Griffith’s shrill, tone-deaf performance and terrible delivery of irritating spoonerisms are arguably the worst bits of the film. She’s far too broad in a movie that’s already far too broad. The character is supposed to be “the devil’s candy”, as described by the film’s producer. She should be so tempting that it’s easy to see why Sherman could fall for her. But the ridiculous looking, shrill, shockingly unsexy Griffith doesn’t convince at all.

The others don’t fare too much better. F. Murray Abraham is hammy as the cynical racist Weiss. Morgan Freeman (in a role originally offered to Walter Matthau and Alan Arkin) is too noble as the judge. Kim Cattrall’s stiff Stepford Wife routine as Sherman’s wife Judy is almost as terrible as Griffith’s performance (Kirsten Scott Thomas was considered and would have been better). John Hancock’s Al Sharpton-inspired performance as the opportunistic preacher is too broad. There are a few effective performances in the margins (Saul Rubinek as the Assistant D.A., Kevin Dunn as Sherman’s lawyer), but they’re surrounded by mountains of shit.

The casting is hardly the only thing that went wrong, however. De Palma’s direction is technically impressive but more often than not distracting from the story. When he incorporates intricate crane shots and his trademark split-screens, it’s hard not to wonder what it’s in service of this time around. It certainly doesn’t serve the story. It’s easy to see De Palma being inspired by corporate and media satires like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment or Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, but De Palma and screenwriter Michael Cristofer don’t handle the Wall Street angles very well, their media satire is too heavy handed, their pacing is terrible, and their handling of Sherman’s guilt is outright stunning in its ham-handedness, this from a director whose strong sense of Catholic guilt usually permeates his films. They’re not helped any by David Grusin’s terrible score, which is way too upbeat, often sappy and/or goofy, and which occasionally sounds like a terrible version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.

There are three scenes in particular that highlight what went wrong with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The first is the actual Bronx scene where Sherman and Maria run over the young man. The scene is far too goofy, generates no suspense, and has the most ridiculous looking “threatening” people in the world. Hanks is too nice to communicate Sherman’s arrogance and condescension towards African-Americans, and while the scene could be played as a misinterpretation of actions from Sherman, the direction is so heavy-handed that it kills any ambiguity.

The second scene involves a dinner party after Sherman has been arrested. He arrives home, having earlier admitted to pissing his pants in prison, looking like hell in the midst of an extravagant dinner party. He’s approached by ridiculously broad caricatures of WASPs and a TV producer who offers to give him head for the rights to his story. It represents the unfunny smuttiness and hermetic portrayal of the upper-class that the film gets so wrong. Really, Scarface was a more effective satire of capitalism in the 80s. Worse, McCoy taking a shotgun out, screaming at everyone to get out, and yelling that “Sherman McCoy is dead!” while Grusin’s upbeat score plays. The problems with tone are so severe that it’s hard to see what the scene was even going for.

The worst scene in the film, however, is the laughable ending, in which McCoy is acquitted, Freeman’s judge is accused of racism (no, really), and he gives a heavy-handed sermon on the importance of decency. The passage isn’t in the original novel, it hammers home the moralistic tone that overpowers any semblance of satire, and it’s completely unbelievable and sanctimonious. By this point, everything the film should be about is gone. The story’s ambiguity has been stripped away. McCoy’s guilt has been cleared away, along with the idea that he’s become a scapegoat. And what of the so-called “forgotten lamb” Henry Lamb, the boy who was run over? The fact that the character is marginalized by the media and interest groups should be highlighted, but this is almost totally lost by the end of the film.

The Bonfire of the Vanities reeks of blown opportunity, extraordinary miscalculation, and career lowlights for everyone involved. De Palma has made some good (even great) films since, but the film kicked off an uneven decade for the director. His next film would be better, but then Jesus, it’d have to be.

EDIT: Here's the link to the opening tracking shot. There, now you've seen the only good part of the film.

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