The Bonfire of the Vanities
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.
Weiss: You mean we nail the WASP?
Kramer: To the wall.
When you consider that director Brian De Palma wanted variously Steve Martin and Chevy Chase for the lead character Sherman McCoy, that seems even more the case. He ended up with Tom Hanks. Who was, ironically, looking for his big break as a dramatic lead, as you’d actually lump his performance here – particularly in his validating comic centre piece, during which McCoy repeatedly fires off a shotgun in order to disperse guests from his luxury apartment – with pretty much every other of his preceding roles, rather than his post-Philadelphia “gravitas”. Hanks isn’t bad exactly (although it’s weird to think he was in his mid-30s, Bruce Willis just a year older, but looks about ten years younger), but he’s playing Tom Hanks as he was then, and thus he’s crucially entirely ill-suited to the confidence, bravado and oily yuppiedom of a "Master of the Universe" Wall Street trader.
He also, once he was on board, encapsulated the slippery slope of neutering the entire object of the exercise. Bonfire’s spiralling out of control production has been famously (or infamously) covered in The Devil’s Candy by Julie Salamon (the film critic for the Wall Street Journal). De Palma wanted to make it as another Dr. Strangelove, a “cartoony epic”, which sounds rather like another failure from the previous decade, Richard Brooks’ Wrong is Right aka The Man With the Deadly Lens, a Kubrickian satire that was very hit and miss, principally as a consequence of never quite finding its tone. With Hanks came the need to make Sherman McCoy sympathetic (to the extent that the Master of the Universe prevails at the end, in contrast to the book’s epilogue). As a Wall Street big shot whose world falls apart when he’s involved in a hit-and-run on a black teenager in Brooklyn, McCoy comes across more like Hugh Laurie’s Bertie Wooster let loose in the city, rather than someone of believable trading acumen.
Moore: But in my house, when a turd appears, we deal with it, we dispose of it, we flush it away. We don’t put it on the table and call it caviar.
Next up is Bruce Willis as washed-up souse journo Peter Fallow (he’s English in the novel – John Cleese turned the part down). The actor comes out of The Devil’s Candy particularly badly (but then, he comes out most movies he was making around this time particularly badly); Warners wanted a star for the part and prevailed over the director. Willis in Bonfire is pretty much giving us David Maddison with less zingers, but I’ll give him the credit that his narration actually works pretty well, and lends the picture a degree of coherence it desperately needs.
He also gets an amusing scene where Alan King (as Melanie Griffith’s husband) drops dead during a dinner anecdote. Notably, the scene is all about Willis’ bemused response. Generally in the picture, though, he looks like he’s just walked out of the costume department wearing the first thing he could find, rather than making any attempt to inhabit a character (I seem to recall that Bruce initially attempted an English accent, one that soon went by the wayside). Willis and Hanks have one scene together, and it confirms they aren’t really in the same movie stylistically, which in turn is different to the movie either of them should be in.
Judge White: You dare call me racist!
The casting of Morgan Freeman as Judge (yes) White created perhaps the most waves, though, given it went to the heart of Warners’ unease over the material and the potential for offence its satire of racial politics might provoke. So the Jewish judge presiding over Sherman’s case – based on a friend of Wolfe’s – a part initially offered to Walter Matthau, and then Alan Arkin when Matthau asked for $1m, went to a post-Driving Miss Daisy and Glory so-hot-right-now Freeman, paid the princely of $4m for four days work (for salary comparisons, Hanks and Willis took home $5m each). When it comes to the big speech calling for decency, it thus has the mollifying effect of someone with gravitas, bearing and moral rectitude, rather than being delivered by someone who is symbolic of a greater problem (the white guy issuing verdicts to the black populace).
All these performers are perfectly acceptable in their own right, but cumulatively they serve to make the movie very ordinary, very typical of anodyne, second-guessed Hollywood product, rather than standing out from the crowd. We aren’t so far from SNL performers’ ‘80s comedies, such as Trading Places, except that was really funny and pointedly cast; Bonfire’s so broad, you half expect The Blues Brothers to show up.
There’s also the part where De Palma’s rather out of his wheelhouse. His biggest critical advocate Pauline Kael, in one of her final published reviews, took Bonfire apart, albeit she was careful to state that the director “showed a genius for sophomoric comedy in his youth”. But that was twenty years prior, and his instincts here for a genre vehicle are about as sharp as they were in Wise Guys just half a decade earlier. He’s good at ghoulish laughs (look at anything where he casts John Lithgow, whom he retrospectively thought should have played McCoy), but his instincts are decidedly less honed in a “straight” comedy. Consequently, there are lots of exaggerated high and low angles. Because nothing says whacky like high and low angles.
He still manages to toss in a technically proficient tracking shot (during which Willis tucks into a whole salmon) as an opener, but it’s entirely less germane and impressive than the one old pal Scorsese incorporated into Goodfellas a few months before. And there’s a kind of hubris here. With The Untouchables, De Palma had a gasp of awards acclaim that had generally eluded him, mainly thanks to his historically unapologetic tendency to provoke and revel in “distasteful” themes and genres. He duly went to Nam, but with material (rape) and a star (Michael J Fox, popular, but not seriously respected – unfairly so) that ensured it wasn’t going to get the kind of attention reserved for Coppola or Stone or Kubrick. How about a bestselling novel, then? What could go wrong? Awards attention would be a fait accompli (the picture came out in the third week of December, tooled up for Oscar nominations, and received only Razzie recognition – Scorsese and Coppola films duly got nods, although history hasn’t been kind to Coppola’s).
The biggest problem with the film, as a result of the shotgun wedding of unsympathetic filmmakers, is ultimately less the blunting of the satire than the lack of any momentum. It’s as if, amidst all the distractions and problems besetting Bonfire, De Palma lost sight of the story he was telling. It flails about like Willis’ drunk act, lurching from scene to scene with a determined absence of finesse, its every error amplified by Dave Grusin’s insufferably overbearing score.
And yet, while I seem to be going that way, this piece isn’t intended as another hatchet job on a movie already entirely eviscerated by most who have encountered it. Like Ishtar, the legends of excess and, well, vanity, precede The Bonfire of the Vanities, but it’s actually quite watchable, moment to moment. You may not be persuaded to carewhere it’s going, but it’s largely a painless experience. Okay, aside from Melanie Griffith’s mistress. She seems to be essaying another in her run of trash hooker roles rather than a trophy wife, with her sub-Marilyn mis-phrasings – “Oh Sherman, you are so paranoidical” (De Palma wanted Uma Thurman, Hanks nixed her as too inexperienced, which is a bit rich given he was a dramatic lightweight at this point, and some would say still is).
Sherman: I want you to meet Aubrey Buffing.
Sherman: The poet. He’s on the short-list for the Nobel Prize. He has AIDS. You’ll love him!
But the picture is nevertheless littered with enjoyable supporting turns. Kim Cattrall nails the tone, where her better paid co-stars don’t, perfectly (apparently, she spent most of the shoot being tortured by De Palma over her weight). Saul Rubinek, in what was more of a third protagonist role in the book, offers precisely the needed unscrupulousness as prosecuting assistant DA Jed Kramer (while the movie would be a blot on the CV of most, it can be seen as the beginning of a period where Rubinek would impress in a series of juicy supporting turns, including Unforgiven and True Romance).
F Murray Abraham also knows this ought to be a satire as Rubinek’s boss Abe Weiss, concerned for his re-election prospects (“By November, they are going to be thinking of me as the first black District Attorney of Bronx County”). There’s also Robert Stephens – how can you stage a scene featuring Abraham and Stephens and not have them say anything to each other? – as Willis’ boss and in an entirely different class to him. Perhaps best of all is Andre Gregory as the marvellously named poet Aubrey Buffing, ranting apocalyptically at a party (it wouldn’t surprise me if Hanks felt guilty about his character’s concern on shaking hands with an AIDS victim and it factored in to his taking Philadelphia).
Peter: Whereas I, you see, who started with so little, gained everything... But what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses… Ah well. There are compensations.
I was also struck by how similar Hanks’ interrogation by cops, during which his overt guilty conscience and ineptitude lead to his digging himself a hole, is to William H Macy’s questioning by Frances McDormand in the later Best Picture Oscar-nominated Fargo. And in fairness, it’s the kind of scene Hanks excels at, relying on his instinctive comic timing.
Naturally, Michael Cristofer’s screenplay – the writer was previously responsible for Falling in Love and The Witches of Eastwick – has to transform the movie’s message into one of uplift, so Sherman loses everything but gains his soul, while Fallow signs off with a smirky irreverence as a vague nod to the novel, but not really. He might as well have tossed a cappuccino over his shoulder. Apparently, the test ending, in which the hit-and-run victim walked out of hospital without a scratch, indicating the whole thing was fabricated, didn’t test well (what, as opposed to everything else?) and was dropped, but I doubt its inclusion would have been either here or there.
So did anyone learn anything from The Bonfire of the Vanities? Well, Warner Bros steered clear of big book adaptations for a spell (until Interview with the Vampire, unless you include Memoirs of an Invisible Man). Hanks persevered with his serious thesp aspirations, to the tune of back-to-back Best Actor Oscars a few years later. Willis made Hudson Hawk, and then ironically forsook probably his biggest asset: that smirk. De Palma wrote and directed Raising Cain as a palate cleanser. And Morgan Freeman kept cashing the cheques for four days’ work.