Rated R - Running time: 1:47 - Released 5/15/98

We have seen several movies lately that have taken potshots at politics, such as Wag The Dog and Primary Colors; this is writer/director Warren Beatty's commentary on the subject. It is the best and at the same time the worst of the three. It is the best because it has by far the most important message to convey. But it is the worst because, unlike the other two, it attempts to make a comedy out of something that is not funny.

California senator Jay Bulworth (Beatty) is up for re-election and is sliding in the polls. His wife (Christine Baranski) is cold; his staff people are patronizing, and even he is beginning to wonder what it's all for. The tedium of his rhetoric is cleverly illustrated in the opening sequence in which he sobs while listening to his lackluster speech over and over again, layered and overdubbed nearly to the point of nausea. Finally he decides to deal with the problem: he hires a hit man; puts a contract out on himself. "If I'm not dead by Monday," he says, "I'm going to stop payment on this check."

But just at the point where he is expecting to hear a shot, he is swept into a roller-coaster ride that convinces him to call off the hit, or at least try to. Delivering a speech to a group of black leaders, he decides that there is no point in deceiving them. He tells them how little they mean to the big politicians in Washington. At another meeting with some influential entertainment executives, enjoying the freedom of imminent assassination, he informs them that he thinks that their product is trash. He also makes disparaging comments about the fact that most of them are Jewish.

Despite the slack-jawed responses of most of the people Bulworth has spoken to, and the bullet-sweating panic of his speech writer (Oliver Platt), his numbers actually start to go up in the polls. The people seem to like the "honesty," though they are increasingly confused by his open use of profanity and his attempt at "rapping." He falls in with a group of young blacks and falls in love (or something) with a girl named Nina (Halle Berry), following her around the most dangerous neighborhoods of South Central L.A. in his limo, turning on to the local slang and trying to fit in. All while trying to avoid being done in by the very man he hired.

This movie suffers from the same trouble as Jackie Brown: if you watch the trailer, you'd think it was a comedy. While there are some really funny moments, Beatty is trying to make a commentary on race relations, and the subject has many sad overtones. His point is the cash-oriented dishonesty of politics and its lack of interest in groups with no major financial base, but his own film's promoters are guilty of the same crime. They are intentionally drawing crowds by culling out a few humorous images and using them for the promos. But the film is full of tension and obscenity that, while it is well intentioned, will turn many viewers off.

The obscenity is not superfluous in this case. It is an integral part of the message; it is the medium with which the point is made. Bulworth's conversion to ghetto vernacular, and the response it causes, is exactly what this story is about. Objecting to the use of certain words in this film is like saying, "Does that artist have to use so much paint?"

The plot is clever. The acting is genuine. The language is foul but neccessary. But I fear that more people will be offended than pleased. ***½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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