Brian De Palma's Vain 'Bonfire' Of Ineptitude

December 21, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Call it "Bonfire of the Calamities." Brian De Palma's version of the great, tough Tom Wolfe best seller "Bonfire of the Vanities" has been turned into a pie-fight. You could say, Send in the Clowns, except that the clowns are already there.

De Palma is clearly frightened by the book, and so it is fair to inquire why he made the movie in the first place. There can be no answer, but certainly never has a director worked more assiduously to subvert the vision of the book he is charged with adapting and never has one copped out more insipidly at the end.

Wolfe's panoramic chronicle of New York City in the grip of racial paranoia and social disintegration watched as a smug WASP bond trader was, after a moment's bad judgment, brought low by venal, barbaric forces. The system, which he had blithely assumed was in place to protect him among all men, instead had been subverted and collaborated eagerly in his deconstruction. The book was the ne plus ultra of Schadenfreude: In his misfortune it took vivid, cautionary glee.

De Palma has turned this grand tapestry of folly and corruption into a cartoon. Why did he hire playwright Michael Cristopher instead of animator Don Bluth as his collaborator? Why did he hire Tom Hanks, with his undistinguished face and nerdy body, to play the Yale-chinned Sherman? And what about meaty Bruce Willis, Jersey-accent intact, to play the magnificently seedy, corrupt British journalist Peter Fallow, much less having him narrate it in cliche-clotted voice-over like Mikey in "Look Who's Talking"? Who can know?

The movie manages to keep speed with the book through the early going. Sherman picks up his mistress (Melanie Griffith) at the airport, but takes a wrong turn and is soon lost in the South Bronx. He has an ambiguous run-in with two black youths, one of whom may or may not have been jostled by his fender. The youth, his wrist hurt, checks into the hospital where medical incompetence soon dumps him into a coma. The Rev. Bacon (John Hancock) decides to inflate the story into a scandal -- the rich white man who hit-and-run the poor black honor student. Desperate Fallow serves as mouthpiece to the scam, and a liberal Jewish district attorney (F. Murray Abraham) uses it as a campaign ploy. Sherman is found, and quickly enough becomes everybody's dinner.

But where Wolfe observed shrewdly, and made the men vivid characters rather than stereotypes, De Palma paints them in dangerously broad terms, verging on the stereotypical. He'll even use a fish-eye lens to subvert the racial characteristics of their faces.

The ending isn't even honest. Wolfe suggested that though Sherman lost all, he somehow gained his manhood back, becoming the self-reliant, stiff-spined stand-up guy his ancestors had once been. In De Palma's version, Sherman saves himself with a grubby little trick that doesn't stand up to logical -- or legal -- scrutiny.

Worse by far, however, is The Speech.

In World War II movies, platoon sergeants and command pilots always gave The Speech. In "Bonfire," poor Morgan Freeman gives it. He's the judge at Sherman's trial; at the end, he strides off the bench and utters the familiar litany of pieties and amoeba-vague generalities and homilies about loving your fellow man, meant to defuse the hostilities created by the film's offensiveness. But it amounts to nothing. It's desperate and unconvincing -- and degrading.

'Bonfire of the Vanities'

Starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith.

Directed by Brian De Palma.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

* 1/2

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