Even by Brian De Palma standards — a man whom critics and audiences continually fall in and out of love with — the collective reaction to his adaptation of the revered Tom Wolfe novel about the evils of '80s capitalism was vicious. But comparing the nuanced social critique of Tom Wolfe's prose to Brian De Palma's wholly unique and bold cinematic recipe requires a different set of expectations. I hope critics and audiences these many years hence who may not have the novel so clearly in their heads can re-watch and enjoy the film for what it is: a bold socio-political farce told through the eyes of a cinema master renowned for visual ingenuity and obsessive cinematic references.
Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) dir. Brian De Palma
Starring: Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman
By Alan Bacchus
At its most extreme, Variety's review labelled its satire "as socially incisive as a Police Academy entry." Of course, many of the critics eviscerating the film had read the novel and saw the story as a different film.
Though I haven't read the novel, I can see De Palma's motivation for broadening the characterizations of his main characters. There are a dozen or more key characters and without the sufficient running time to fine-tune them, De Palma resorts to audacious caricatures and a breezy, Preston Sturgess-like pace. Sherman McCoy, the "master of the universe" and blood-sucking personification of'80s capitalism, is admirably humanized by Tom Hanks's accessible performance. Even as a corporate shark that cheats on his wife, he's warm and sympathetic. Hanks's comic timing is on the mark at all times and plays off the Southern bell bimbo characterization of his mistress, Maria Ruskin (Griffith), with intelligent dopiness.
It's easy to see audiences being turned off by the sloppy drunkenness of Peter Fallow (Willis), the journalist and narrator who incites the domino effect of the film's plotting. While we desire Hanks to escape his predicament, for Willis, he unfortunately never escapes the buffoonery of the opening sequence.
The irony of Wolfe's socio-political statement — the reversal of fortune of a bloodsucking capitalist thrown to the bottom feeders of city politics who use McCoy's misfortune for their own gain, admittedly — is smashed into our faces by De Palma. But there's a lot of fun in John Hancock's performance as shameless, self-promoting, Al Sharpton-like city preacher Reverend Bacon, same with F. Murray Abraham's extreme portrayal of the racist D.A. Weiss.
And even in limited scenes, character actors such as Saul Rubinek, Kevin Dunn, Donald Moffat and Clifton James give memorable comic performances. We can also delight in the visual extravaganza engineered by De Palma, maximizing his then-tremendous 45 million budget. To complement the exaggerated performances, De Palma's puts all his money on the screen, choreographing some remarkable set pieces, including the raucous court scenes and the mind-boggling steady-cam, one-shot take that begins the film.
Bonfire of the Vanities will likely be put into the same company as overambitious duds such as Steven Spielberg's 1941, Scorsese's New York, New York and Francis Coppola's One From the Heart — admirable failures that only great filmmakers could make.
This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca