Saturday 27 June 2020

Movie Review: The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990)

A satirical comedy-drama about human surrender to avarice, The Bonfire Of The Vanities tackles weighty subjects with a dismissively careless attitude.

Perpetually drunk reporter-turned-author Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) basks in the glory of his new-found fame as a best-selling author. In flashback, Fallow recounts the past year's events. Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) is one of the few "Masters of the Universe", a mega-wealthy Wall Street bond trader raking in millions per deal. Married to Judy (Kim Cattrall), he is carrying on an affair with the equally married airhead Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith).

Sherman picks up Maria from the airport and after a wrong turn they end up deep in the Bronx late at night. They tangle with two Black men and in the frantic effort to drive away Maria, now in the driver's seat, accidentally runs over one of the men. Maria convinces Sherman not to report the incident, but with the victim in a coma the outraged South Bronx Black community rises to demand justice and a full investigation of the hit-and-run, with Reverend Bacon (John Hancock) leading the protests.

Ambitious District Attorney Weiss (an uncredited F. Murray Abraham) recognizes the publicity value of the case. Assistant DA Kramer (Saul Rubinek) starts investigating, and Fallow is plucked from obscurity to start pumping newspaper headlines. Soon Sherman's car is identified and his life is forever altered, with a climax in the courtroom of the Black Judge White (Morgan Freeman).

An adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel, The Bonfire Of The Vanities critiques rampant narcissism with inflated humour. Overcoming a nightmarish production cycle featuring countless casting and miscasting chops and changes, director Brian De Palma nevertheless luxuriates in creating a vivid and hyper-realistic world, whether in McCoy's Manhattan apartment or on the streets of the Bronx. And he layers on the cinematic tricks, glitz and style, including a spectacular opening single tracking shot extending close to five minutes as Farrow arrives at a gala event. 

But the problems run deep, from Farrow's boring and unnecessary narration to the juvenile comedy antics, including McCoy using a shotgun to end a party and Kramer instigating a physical courtroom fracas. And unrefined hyperbole surrounds every distasteful character. In the context of a movie studded with star names, the absence of a single empathetic character becomes a problem script writer Michael Cristofer cannot solve. Fallow has traded his career for the bottle, Maria is an over-sexed and vocabulary-challenged moron, Weiss is a villain in a suit with his eyes solely on the Mayor's chair, and Reverend Bacon is a larger than life thunderous buffoon.

Which leaves Tom Hanks stranded in the central role of Sherman McCoy, a man with apparently no redeeming qualities, making money by trading money and happy to cheat on his wife with a bimbo. Still, the film needs a victim and McCoy is the closest thing to it, but he remains a relative non-entity as the cause of racial justice is co-opted by all around him for selfish causes.

Morgan Freeman's Judge White emerges as the one individual fighting a rearguard action to safeguard some sense of decency amidst the sea of moral bankruptcy. Within a societal sensibility portrayed as rotten to the core and well beyond salvation, his climactic speechifying carries no conviction.

For all its faults, The Bonfire Of The Vanities is nothing if not perceptive. It borders on cartoonish, but the film lays bare the tsunami of materialistic selfishness and greed corroding hearts and minds, a fiery spiral reaching into every corner and always spinning downwards.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome reader comments about this post.