*/**** Image B Sound B-
starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman
screenplay by Michael Cristofer, based on the novel by Tom Wolfe
directed by Brian De Palma
by Walter Chaw Based on Tom Wolfe's instantly-legendary (and instantly-dated, truth be known) novel about the upper crust of Manhattan society in the '80s, Brian De Palma's The Bonfire of the Vanities is a disaster mitigated now and again by the odd extraordinary shot--exhibit A in what happens when too much money is spent in the creation of too sure a thing. The production was besieged by distraction and calamity, all of it captured in Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy in what, after watching the movie again for the first time since its release, seems too measured a hatchet job. After all, Salamon's book is really just proof of what's evidenced on screen and observed by contemporary audiences: Decisions were made to pander to the lowest common denominator, and say what you will about the lowest common denominator, but it often knows when it's being condescended to. More, it confirms that Bruce Willis was outmatched by the demands of the material; that Tom Hanks was disengaged; that Melanie Griffith was badly miscast; and that Morgan Freeman was inserted as a sop to an African-American community that not only would have to endure multiple comic-effect uses of the word "nigger" during the course of the film, but would likely never go see it in the first place. The great irony of pandering to the lowest common denominator in an adaptation of an arch Tom Wolfe novel, is...well, you finish it. Frankly, when you can't get Peter Travers to like it, you're in seriously deep shit.
Sherman McCoy (Hanks) is a "master of the universe," a bond trader at the height of Me-generation delirium, floating through the society stratosphere on sulphurous waves of smug entitlement and callow indifference. He has an "X-ray" society wife (Kim Cattrall, who would sanctify this role in "Sex and the City") and a ridiculous Southern sex-kitten mistress, Maria (Melanie Griffith), who, for all her embarrassing malapropisms, makes the gravest mistake of all in imagining Wolfe as a peddler of awful Catskills one-liners. One night, Sherman takes a wrong turn, Maria grabs the wheel in panic, and a black youth is run over. Political interests, financial interests, yellow-journalistic interests, and Al Sharpton interests are roused into infernal activity around the perceived class injustice. It all ends with sanctimonious Judge White (Freeman) delivering a chastising speech to a court packed with racial insensitivities to "be decent." The Bonfire of the Vanities is terribly embarrassing for everyone involved, with Bruno only successful at doing a drunk-walk (and working much too hard to say words like "inextricably"), Hanks doing Big again for some reason, Cattrall too vulnerable by half, Freeman already settling into the God role, and Griffith never quite hearing the rhythm or tempo. Worst is De Palma, endeavouring to produce a crowd-pleasing blockbuster to atone for his 'down' masterpiece Casualties of War: out of character, out of his depth.
The result is a film that pleases no one. It's not entertaining enough to sate the masses, not pithy enough to calm the snobs. It's deeply stupid about smart topics, acting every bit the once-brilliant mind beset by a cognitive degenerative disorder. You can see it underneath there, hear it now and again in the accidentally-quoted source; and why is it that this production, meticulous in so many ways, looks exactly like a 1990 television sitcom? The Bonfire of the Vanities is heavy-handed, somehow simultaneously cocksure and confused. The opening 5-minute tracking shot is already legend, as is a brief moment that has a Concorde landing in front of a sunset with the Empire State Building in the same frame (a single shot that was rumoured to cost around $30k)--both probably more legendary for being housed in something this bad. They're products of De Palma's technical acumen and hubris (there's a split-screen in here, too, that includes Geraldo Rivera), both--the real problem of the picture is that it's a $45M audition reel, though it's uncertain who he's showing off for, and it feels a lot like desperation. It's not about anything, this Bonfire of the Vanities, just a gifted, maybe important, director trying to please everyone except himself. The only hint of Wolfe's themes, in other words, are in the making of the movie itself: privilege, delusion, pride, and then the great fall. It's merely Hollywood's most recent object lesson--the one it never tires of learning.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner brings The Bonfire of the Vanities to Blu-ray, quietly. The 1.77:1, 1080p transfer reproduces Vilmos Zsigmond's unusually bright, curiously normal work with nice fidelity. Grain is prevalent but in an unobtrusive, filmic way, while black levels are natural and true. Though the 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is not exciting, it does reproduce Dave Grusin's atrocious, whipped-off score with good volume. You can also understand all the dialogue, which is too bad. There's nothing much to talk about here and, knowing that, Warner makes the sound decision not to bother with any special features whatsoever. I'd recommend reading The Devil's Candy: The Anatomy Of A Hollywood Fiasco--the revised edition with bits about how butt-hurt Willis was by the first edition--to scratch any itch you might have.