Few movie misfires are as glaringly bereft of the calculus of success as Brian DePalma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); an unscrupulous bastardization of the rather dark and cynical first novel by Tom Wolfe transformed into something of a foul-mouthed freak show from which no reputation, either in front of or behind the camera, escaped unscathed. Wolfe’s novel was an insidiously perverse deconstruction of New York’s power broker set driven to excel in the go-go 80s. Regrettably the Michael Cristofer screenplay takes Wolfe’s story to task, only to emerge as a whacked out travesty, effectively diffusing any potential the film may have had as a dark and brooding social critique. Instead, it plays long in the tooth as a tongue-in-cheek folly in faux screwball comedy.
DePalma, along with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond chose to enhance the garishness of the exercise by incorporating obscure camera angles and in-camera lens effects. These occasionally warp and stretch the actors’ facial expressions. But DePalma has remained steadfast in his defense of the movie, claiming media ‘over-hype’ plus a few ‘minor’ mistakes in pre-production are largely to blame for the film’s failure. DePalma has also said that The Bonfire of the Vanities isn’t really as bad as all that – citing time as the necessary healer for most its artistic wounds.
Some movies do indeed improve with the test of time. But The Bonfire of the Vanities isn’t likely to be one of them. Regrettably, twenty-two years removed from its colossal thud at the box office hasn’t turned the vinegar into fine wine. In fact The Bonfire of the Vanities is easily one of the worst movies ever put forth by a major Hollywood studio – its only true competitors for the top spot arguably Ishtar, At Long Last Love and Waterworld: distinguished company, indeed! For starters, Bonfire lacks narrative cohesion. Worse, its performances uniformly register as pure lampoon. The question therefore remains whether DePalma’s real intentions were to do a faithful adaptation of the book or merely a bad spoof of it.
Cristofer’s screenplay opens on an elaborate time lapse of the Manhattan skyline viewed from just beneath the ledge of a stone gargoyle atop the Chrysler Building. After the main titles we arrive at a very swank black tie book signing for the new novel by famed journalist, Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis); a one-time ‘has been’ turned man of the hour after penning his juicy exposé on one of the highest profile cases in recent years. The subject of the book is Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks), a high ranking Wall Street bonds broker who lived extravagantly in a penthouse on 5th Ave. with his superficial wife, Judy (Kim Catrall) until the evening when he obtusely telephoned his own home instead of another number to inquire about his mistress, Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith).
Maria is a devious, heartless, oversexed vamp, indulging the affair with Sherman behind her own husband, millionaire Arthur’s (Alan King) back. Picking up Maria from JFK airport for their latest tryst at the apartment of Maria’s close friend Caroline Heftshank (Beth Broderick), Sherman accidentally takes a wrong turn and winds up in the South Bronx. Navigating his way through this ‘war zone’ - the only Caucasian face for miles - Sherman and Maria come to a dead end beneath one of the on ramps that will lead them back to the main highway. The path is blocked by a tire. However, as Sherman attempts to move it out of the way he is confronted by a pair of black youths (Troy Winbush and Patrick Malone, the latter as Henry Lamb). Panicked at the prospect of being mugged – or worse – Maria runs over Henry, sending him into a coma. Afterward, Maria and Sherman drive to their prearranged rendezvous where she encourages Sherman to remain silent about their ordeal.
Regrettably, Maria’s ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ policy is about to have dire repercussions for all concerned. For Fallow, an alcoholic on the verge of losing his career and thus his livelihood, is just ripe enough (literally and figuratively) for the story. Fabricating his own ‘hit and run’ scenario for the scandal sheets, Fallow is instantly transformed into the hottest writer in the business. Worse for Sherman, Henry’s mother, Annie (Mary Alice) tells the Reverend Bacon (John Hancock) that before her boy slipped into a coma he identified both the make of the car and the first two letters of its license plate. Bacon, who is as unscrupulous as he proves cagy in fanning the flames of racial divide for personal profit, seizes the opportunity to confront district attorney, Abe Weiss (F. Murray Abraham) with the particulars of the Lamb case, pressuring Weiss to make an arrest. The scapegoat need not be guilty so long as he is ideally positioned to bear the brunt of the black community’s incredulity. So Weiss orders assistant D.A., Jed Kramer (Saul Rubenik) to frame Sherman McCoy for the crime under the pretext of serving justice. The irony of course is that justice is, in fact, being served by the indictment.
However, no nonsense Bronx judge, Leonard White (Morgan Freeman) isn’t buying Weiss’ faux righteous crusade and marks his contempt over Weiss’ desire to win re-election at all costs. None of this matters to Sherman who has already been identified by NYPD detectives Martin (Barton Heyman) and Goldberg (Norman Parker) as the owner of the Mercedes that struck down Lamb. The ensuing firestorm wrecks Sherman life and career. It also strips him of his dignity. After his sycophantic friends become playfully amused by his self-destruction – coming to regard him as nothing better than a figure of fun – Sherman goes slightly mad, chasing his guests with a twelve gauge shotgun until he’s cleared the room.
Judy leaves Sherman high and dry. But Fallow, tinged with an ounce of remorse, takes it upon himself to do some real investigative work for a change – especially after Sherman off-handedly confesses that he was not the one driving his car the night Lamb was run down. Fallow learns from Caroline of an installed wire taping system in the apartment Sherman and Maria used for their hideaway. Their conversation has been captured for posterity on cassette and it absolutely reveals that Maria was the driver of the car. Fallow turns the tape over to Sherman’s attorney, Tom Killian (Kevin Dunn) who informs his client that it is inadmissible and privileged unless Sherman can say with a degree of certainty that he deliberately intended to record it.
To this, of course, Sherman cannot attest. So Killian wires him for sound to elicit a second confession from Maria. In the meantime, Arthur has died while getting severely drunk with Fallow. Sherman’s attempt to get Maria to talk at Arthur’s wake is a disaster when she discovers the wire hidden beneath his overcoat and drives him from the chapel with shrieks of contempt and betrayal. Jed, who has been eavesdropping, corners the supposedly grieving widow and thereafter coaches her on what to say on the stand in Judge White’s courtroom.
But Sherman, having been pushed into a corner for so long, has finally decided to stand up for himself. After Maria perjures herself Sherman plays the tape in court for all to hear. Judge White asks Sherman how this confession was obtained and Sherman plainly lies that he intended to tape their conversation all along. Caught in her own web of lies Maria faints dead away. Killian, Reverend Bacon and D.A. Weiss are chagrined and White dismisses all charges against Sherman. The courtroom attendees, mostly angry faces expecting Sherman to be convicted of the crime of manslaughter, now accuse White of racism. White responds that an obfuscation of the legal system for political gain or even for mere profit is a far greater indictment, perhaps even a moral sin that he will absolutely not tolerate in his courtroom.
Witnessing Sherman’s exoneration Fallow feels vindicated for his part in this three ring fiasco. Our story ends with a return to the beginning; Fallow surrounded by the same sycophants who championed Sherman’s downfall, now utterly praising his hard cover novelization of the crime. Having become a gluttonous media celebrity in a world completely ignorant of the truth, Fallow concludes by misquoting the Bible; “for what does a man profit if he gains the whole world but loses his…oh well, there are other perks!”
The Bonfire of the Vanities is so inanely glib, so irreverently ridiculous in its approach to the Wolfe novel that it tragically misses the novel’s mark for delicious cruelty. Cristofer’s original script called for Henry Lamb to eventually regain consciousness and suggest that the whole scenario had been concocted; an even more bizarre outcome not in Wolf’s original. This version was shot but did not test well with preview audiences. Arguably, Bonfire does not fare any better in its current form. Barely recouping a third of its $48 million production costs the film was an unqualified critical disaster too.
Artistic liberties are half the film’s problem; only partly responsible for its disappointing failure. Blame must also be ascribed to the cast – none rising above the drivel they’ve been given. It’s baffling how an actor as gifted as Morgan Freeman could deliver such a stilted tirade as he does during the final moments of Sherman’s trial – his oration so vacuous and preachy that it grates on one’s social conscience instead of liberating it from the constraints of this morally bankrupt social injustice. Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith are mismatched connubial milquetoast at best; her whiny scheming harlot and ill fit for his equally whiny scared little rabbit routine. Hanks’ Sherman McCoy is a petulant buffoon wholly at odds with the stoic, angst ridden character in Wolf’s novel.
Bruce Willis’ ego proved something of a challenge that neither DePalma nor the movie could satisfactorily tame. And yet, left to his own accord Willis gives the most competent performance in the film. Kim Cattrall is a shrill and unsympathetic harpy – a walking cliché with a very bad dye job. The rest of the cast use up their screen time strictly for laughs (which they rarely get) and grossly overplay their hand in a sort of one-upmanship to be the very best of the worst. Bottom line: The Bonfire of the Vanities is a painful excursion: two hours of pointless, spineless tedium.
Warner Home Video’s decision to release The Bonfire of the Vanities to Blu-ray is curious indeed, particularly given the movie’s near universal panning by the critics and especially since the Warner backlog of catalogue titles still in absentia on hi-def yield an immediate and most obvious embarrassment of riches that have yet to see the light of day. The Bonfire of the Vanities was one of WB’s very first DVDs too. Bizarre! There’s no point in comparing the two. The Blu-ray easily bests the DVD. The 1080p transfer is very crisp indeed with refined colors, improved flesh tones, solid contrast levels and a very good rendering of grain. This disc would be impressive if not for a very curious anomaly that appears roughly two thirds into the presentation.
Immediately following the scene where Fallow is seduced by Caroline and given the tape of Sherman and Maria, the image begins to wobble uncontrollably; not from side to side (suggesting sprocket damage) but from some video based noise (akin to viewing an old analog broadcast with an antenna while a plane is flying over one’s house to obstruct the signal). I am unable to quantify exactly how or why this anomaly exists but it does and is quite distracting for several long moments. A similar anomaly also occurs on WB’s recently minted Blu-ray of Ice Station Zebra and again, at roughly the 2/3rd mark in that film. Very odd!
The audio is 5.1 DTS and quite adequate, yielding good solid bass and some nice directionalized effects. Otherwise, Warner has gone bare bones on this title with nothing more than a trailer to offer as extras. It’s just as well. The film is hardly deserving of anything better. Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)