Out of time

Narcissism drives Warren Beatty into the 'hood

Bulworth's pronouncements quickly pass from quasi-objectionable to right-on. By the time he shows up at an all-white church in Pasadena, we've already seen him spend the night as a whacked-out rap master in a hip-hop club, lusting after the beautiful, imperious Nina (Halle Berry), who commends him for his bravery and leads him on. Now that he's a soul man, there's no stopping Bulworth. He tries to get the hit against him erased. He unloads bombshells in that Pasadena church about the true nature of politics: "The name of our game is Let's Make a Deal." (Stop the presses.) Two black girls who hitch a joyride on his campaign trail (Michele Morgan and Ariyan Johnson) shake up the congregation's starched white choir. Presumably the problem with America is that we just don't know to get down.

Even though Beatty has Bulworth say that "poor white people and black people have more in common with each other than with rich people," the only poor we see are blacks. No poor whites, or for that matter, poor Latinos--and this in Los Angeles, no less. But though Beatty celebrates soul as the salvation of the country, he doesn't have much feeling for the new hip-hop culture. He's playing an uncool sixty-ish white guy in Bulworth, and indeed the film often looks like it was directed by one.

His idealized view of black power also leads him into some unintentionally laughable terrain. He introduces L.D. (Don Cheadle), a South-Central dope king who employs a band of gun-toting preteens. They threaten Bulworth on their mean streets, and he counters by buying them ice-cream cones, which they gratefully lap up. How cuddly. A police car swings by, and a white racist cop spews hatred until, like an avenging angel, Bulworth steps in. Later, L.D. lectures the senator on the reality of ghetto life. His little soldiers, you see, are taking part in the "only growth center open to them." With no job and no education, what's a young man to do? Bulworth takes note.

In moments like these, Beatty isn't that far from the mind-set of '70s blaxploitation movies like Superfly, which often had its pimps and pushers performing double duty as truth-tellers and victims of "the system." (At one point, Beatty actually shows us a South-Central movie marquee announcing Superfly). But those movies were at least aware of their own hypocrisy. Beatty is almost touchingly naive. Make ice cream not Uzis.

There's also a high volume of radical chic pumping through Beatty's bleeding heart. He is, for example, still moony about the Black Panthers. Bulworth's love for Nina is sealed when she tells him that, as a girl, "Huey Newton fed the kids on my block." It's as if Bulworth can only embrace her beauty if it's backed by the proper pedigree. His hots for her are guilt-free. Nina tells him at the end, "You my nigga," and she means it as the highest compliment. What a lucky guy--not only is Bulworth the healer of races, but he's still babe-worthy. (Young black audiences watching Bulworth and Nina embrace may take a less charitable view of their union).

The political fantasies in Bulworth extend beyond race. When the senator's invectives air on national television, he turns into a folk hero. No less a deity than Larry King informs us that America wants Bulworth--not just for senator but for president.

But the movie overvalues Bulworth's straight talk. Hasn't Beatty been listening to American political dialogue in the past decade? This fanfare-for-the-common-man/down-with-big-business rap is indistinguishable from the patter that passes for populism these days from the right, left, and center. Even Ross Perot and Steve Forbes get away with it. When Bulworth tells us that "the rich are getting richer," and the corporations lock out free speech, he may be preaching from the heart, but he's hardly breaking new ground. Bulworth is supposed to be about the power of truth in politics, but it's so tone-deaf to the way the game is played that it becomes something it never intended: A movie about a con artist who finds a new con.

Bulworth.
Directed by Warren Beatty. Written by Beatty and Jeremy Pikser. Starring Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, and Paul Sorvino. Opens Friday.

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