Monday, November 16, 2015

Mental Illness Trumps Social Commentary In Bulworth!

The Good: Political message, Performances
The Bad: Character problems, Writing/themes
The Basics: Bulworth has some good ideas, which are undermined by the execution of its high-minded principles.

Every now and then, I finally get around to the massive list of films I have that people have recommended to me and I get to watch one. Tonight, the film that I've finally cleared from my list is Bullworth. For years, I have been politically active and between commentary and activism, friends have recommended various films to me. While I've long loved The West Wing (reviewed here!), one of the films that it took me a long time to get to was Bulworth. While I respect the people who recommended Bulworth to me, the film has enough flaws to be impossible for me to recommend.

The concept of Bulworth is not an inherently bad one, but its execution allows virtually the entire film to be written off as the ravings of a mentally ill man. One of the main warning signs of schizophrenia is a lingual problem called "clanging." Throughout Bulworth, the protagonist frequently raps in a way that is much more clanging than rational rebellion, which means Bulworth is more about a man suffering a full psychological collapse as opposed to a man who has a mid-life crisis and starts standing up for his long-abandoned principles.

As the 1996 elections loom, California Senator Jay Billington Bulworth finds himself despondent. Once a fiery liberal Senator, Bulworth has sold out all his principles. So, he takes out a massive insurance policy on himself and hires a hitman to kill him while he is campaigning in California. Bulworth's behavior becomes alarming to the party when he starts to call out the financiers of his campaign, straightforwardly telling his audiences that he is bought and paid for by various industries and rapping to them about how change won't come while there is money so intimately integrated in American politics.

While fleeing his financiers, Bulworth connects with Nina, a young woman under the thumb of a local drug lord, thanks to her brother's debts. Nina titillates Bulworth and takes him to a rave. Amid the affection and the drugs, Bulworth begins to feel like the man he once was and decides he no longer wants to die. As Bulworth and Nina flee to the ghetto, Bulworth comes to realize that the danger might be closer than he thought!

Bulworth is a heavy R for language and for as much as Warren Beatty tosses out the f-word, the film is more horrifying for the way the word "nigger" is thrown around. While the word is used as a form of characterization, the message of the film is frequently lost by the casual use of obscenities. In other words, the epitaphs are thrown around not as a function of political outrage, but rather to characterize Bulworth's mental decline and the culture of many of the black characters living in the ghetto.

The performances in Bulworth are almost universally wonderful. Halle Berry's performance as Nina is unlike any other role she had. It's weird watching Cloud Atlas (reviewed here!) and then go over to Bulworth where Berry looks so young running around with her thong sticking out, but Berry plays the spunky and desperate Nina surprisingly well. Similarly, Don Cheadle's L.D. is far from his articulate and socially active roles as he plays the part with unsettling menace.

Warren Beatty slouches through the role of Bulworth and he plays the part with a decent balance of slurring and hinting at the prior potential of the character. Bulworth might have once been an upstanding, principled man but he is a buffoon now and Beatty plays that astonishingly well.

Unfortunately, the quality of the performances is nowhere near enough to carry the film. At its best, Bulworth hints at establishing a high-minded debate about the critical problems with finance in American politics. At its worst, Bulworth is a high man running around clanging. The latter overwhelms the former and makes it impossible to recommend Bulworth.

For other political films, please check out my reviews of:
The American President
Game Change
All The President's Men


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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