He’s played gangsters from Clyde Barrow to Bugsy Siegel, but Warren Beatty doing gangsta rap in hip-hop drag — well, this you don’t see every day. What’s up with blastmaster Beatty besides a sight gag? Plenty. Bulworth, an alternately ballsy and blundering social satire, takes comic aim at the great divide between race and wealth in America. And just so you know Beatty means business, for only the third time in his career he is functioning as a quadruple threat: director, producer, writer and actor. Previously, both Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Reds (1981) brought him Oscar nominations in these four categories (he won Best Director for Reds). Bet on one thing: For crafting an ambitious political lampoon spiked with righteous anger and a zeal for reform, Beatty will not go unpunished. Audiences yawned off Wag the Dog and Primary Colors, and pundits will legitimately dismiss much of Bulworth as just plain bull. Still, if you’re stirred by the sight of a high-wire artist working without a net, catch Beatty’s act.
The star, now sixty-one, plays Jay Billington Bulworth, a fat-cat, sellout Democratic senator from California who is on the final weekend of his 1996 re-election campaign. To quote a Cypress Hill lyric, the senator is “insane in the membrane.” And that’s before he tries to elude assassins by hiding out as a homey in South Central Los Angeles.
For starters, Bulworth is so depressed by the souring of his Sixties ideals, by his loveless marriage to Constance (Christine Baranski) — they both fuck around — by his non-relationship with his teenage daughter and by his too-close relationship with a Washington lobbyist (Paul Sorvino) that he has put out a contract on his own life. The deal is arranged through intermediaries with a hired gun named Vinnie, played with witty ennui by veteran director Richard Sarafian. Since this will be the final weekend of Bulworth’s life, he breaks the key rule of politics by publicly saying exactly what he thinks. It’s Liar Liar, only this time with dire consequences.
In scenes that have been expertly shot by Vittorio Storaro and edited by Robert C. Jones, Bulworth adapts the hip-hop art of outrage to his own defiant, brazenly funny ends. He addresses Hollywood hotshots as “the big Jews,” lambastes them for corrupting youth with sex and violence, and then promises that his people will “put something bad about Farrakhan” into his next speech in exchange for campaign bucks. He warns members of the black community to “put down the malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind somebody other than a running back who stabs his wife.” Otherwise, he says, “you’re never going to get rid of somebody like me.”
The senator’s staff, led by Murphy (the terrific Oliver Platt steals every scene he’s in), is appalled at the boss’s bluntness. Bulworth feels liberated, especially when his popularity ratings go up and he decides he wants to live. With the help of Nina (Halle Berry), a beauty he picks up on the campaign trail, Bulworth takes refuge from the hit man in South Central, dressing and acting like a man possessed by Puff Daddy. He starts rapping his speeches, even on TV with Larry King. He tells interviewers that they’re slaves to ignoble corporate entities dedicated to the accumulation of wealth, not wisdom. Bulworth is released by Twentieth Century Fox, an entity owned by News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, who may relate to a line delivered by Murphy: “I’ve been fucked up the ass with my pants on.”
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Beatty is playing with fire here, and the daring suits him, especially after his tight-assed roles in Ishtar, Dick Tracy and Love Affair. His best performances (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Parallax View, Shampoo, Bonnie and Clyde) all speak to society’s ills. That’s what makes the rap connection in Bulworth such a snug fit. Illustrator Steve Brodner (a contributor to this magazine and this column) designed the film’s poster, which shows a rapper version of Bulworth emerging from the senator’s normally mealy mouth. And blasts from the likes of Public Enemy, KRS-One and members of Wu-Tang Clan (it’s a knockout soundtrack, superbly complemented by Ennio Morricone’s haunting score) seem to goad Bulworth to keep pushing the envelope of his anger.
Unfortunately, Beatty pushes too far. As an actor, he dulls Bulworth’s rap act with repetition. As a director, he allows his lead actor to be self-indulgent. As a writer (in collaboration with Jeremy Pikser, who wrote, yikes, The Lemon Sisters), he buries his arguments in plot contrivances, such as an irrelevant love interest (Berry), a homeless prophet (Amiri Baraka) crying about the death of the spirit, and a gang leader (Don Cheadle), who exploits children like a South Central Fagin. Encountering a posse of street kinds who are hawking crack and packing heat, Bulworth offers to buy them ice cream. Such solutions are the toxic standard of politics, and sometimes of this movie as well. What lifts Bulworth above its lapses, including a muddled ending, is Beatty’s passion to invigorate audiences with a taste for the truth. Even when he misses the mark, Beatty earns points for aiming high.