The Bonfire of the Vanities

Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel about the Greed Decade was penetrating, prophetic and incisively satirical. Director Brian De Palma's $45 million film version of the book is superficial, shopworn and cartoonish. On film, Bonfire achieves a consistency of ineptitude rare even in this era of over-inflated cinematic air bags. Let's start with the miscasting. Tom Hanks is a comic actor of proven gifts. But he is not Sherman McCoy, the patrician bond trader whose career mirrors the rise and fall of such Wall Street "masters of the universe" as Michael Milken. In the book, McCoy is imperious, a shallow user; Hanks plays him as goofy and sympathetic. Melanie Griffith has the curves and the Southern-belle voice of McCoy's mistress, Maria Ruskin, but the script robs this magnolia of her steel. The movie Maria is a cupcake who spouts malapropisms ("I read spasmodically") and arouses the limp McCoy with such come-ons as "I'm a sucker for a soft dick, Shuh-mun." Michael Cristofer's script substitutes crudity for Wolfe's sophistication – a disservice Cristofer previously performed for John Updike on The Witches of Eastwick.

De Palma is clearly trying to break free of the book's reputation and give the film its own identity. Never a timid director in his good movies (Carrie, Dressed to Kill) or his lousy ones (Obsession, Scarface), De Palma has hyperbolized Wolfe's stinging indictment of New York society into a flat-out farce. As miscalculations go, this one's a lulu. The acting, directing, writing, Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography and Dave Grusin's score are all pitched wildly over the top. Wolfe skewered every economic and racial group in New York City. His barbs drew blood because his characters, however exaggerated, were recognizable and real. The movie's a gaudy, trashy comic strip.

The story pivots on one incident: Driving Maria home from the airport in his Mercedes, Sherman takes a wrong turn and ends up in the South Bronx. Frightened by two black men blocking the ramp to the highway, they run down and critically injure one of the men while racing to escape. Later, they conspire to hide the incident from the police. When the truth surfaces, McCoy becomes the center of a media witch hunt. Reverend Bacon (John Hancock) – a black religious leader – shouts about justice and lawsuits, while Bronx DA Abe Weiss (F. Murray Abraham) – with an eye on becoming mayor – plots to throw the book at McCoy to win the minority vote. Meanwhile, McCoy's marriage to "social X-ray" Judy (Kim Cattrall) collapses, along with his career.

With its uncanny intimations of How-ard Beach and Bensonhurst, Tawana Brawley and Al Sharpton, Milken and Ivan Boesky, Wolfe's novel was a powder keg that De Palma's movie version cowardly defuses. Controversy has rarely played big at the box office. So the book's feisty Judge Kovitsky has been changed from a Jew to a black man, the better to soften cries of racism when the judge – now named White and played by Morgan Freeman – lectures a courtroom largely filled with blacks about decency. Casting likable Bruce Willis as Peter Fallow, the sleazy tabloid reporter (British in the book) who writes lies about McCoy to boost his own career, further dulls the story's edge. The movie even invents a meet-cute for Fallow and McCoy involving the subway (McCoy wants to know if it stops at Park Avenue). Willis also narrates the film, reciting some of Wolfe's choicest prose and giving the illogical and misleading impression that Fallow is based on Wolfe. The author wisely had nothing to do with this bonfire of inanities. Neither should audiences.

From The Archives Issue 596: January 24, 1991