Campaign Contributions and Mistaken Identities
By Rick Barton
JUNE 8, 1998:
STARRING: Warren Beatty, Halle Berry
DIRECTOR: Warren Beatty
You may have seen the trailers and TV commercials for Warren Beatty's Bulworth. A U.S. senator campaigning for re-election appears before an African-American audience. In response to a question about support for the black community, he says that minorities aren't ever going to get a significant piece of the American pie until they put down the malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind something other than a former running back who stabbed his wife. Appearing before a group of Hollywood filmmakers, the same senator attacks the vacuity of the motion picture industry and makes cracks about "the big Jews." Offensive stuff. But offensive stuff with an instructive point, namely that in the 1990s, the name of American politics is spelled out in dollar signs. Politicians listen to those with the money to make campaigning possible. Those who contribute get paid back with legislation to protect their interests, which, of course, is why they contribute in the first place. That's an ugly truth that makes the nasty humor of this picture more than a little worthwhile. In the end, Bulworth is a kind of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the hip-hop age. In an America that no longer sees itself as small-town, straight-laced and uniformly white, we still need politicians for the people, chosen by the people, to serve the people.
Written by Beatty and Jeremy Pikser and directed by Beatty, Bulworth is the story of Sen. Jay Bulworth (Beatty), a middle-age Democrat from California running for re-election in 1996. Pictures on his office wall showing the senator with such heroes as Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X suggest an idealistic past. But today, he's obviously just a hack politician trying to tack his liberal sails into the prevailing conservative wind. Bulworth is a classic case of spiritual burnout. If he ever stood for something, he doesn't any longer. He's a toady to the big corporate interests with the cash to help him stay in office. Like his campaign speeches, his political ideas are cobbled together by political operatives with one eye on opinion polls and the other on the campaign checkbook.
Almost everything about Bulworth is a fraud. He's estranged from his wife, Constance (Christine Baranski), who nonetheless appears for "family values" photo shoots even as she's hustling off to rendezvous with her current lover. Bulworth and his daughter have no relationship at all. And so Bulworth decides to make one last deal. He's sold out to corporate interests for years. This time, he promises to bottle up a piece of legislation in exchange for $10 million worth of life insurance with his daughter as beneficiary. Then he puts out a contract on his own life.
Kris Kristofferson observed that "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," and with nothing left to lose, Jay Bulworth suddenly finds himself astonishingly free. He begins to say exactly what he thinks, oblivious to the outrage he engenders at every turn. In a kind of death dance, he goes to a shady Los Angeles rap club, jives the night away and comes out speaking in rhymes. Along the way, he picks up a beautiful African-American girlfriend named Nina (Halle Berry) and ends up making TV appearances dressed like a rapper from N.W.A. Pols are astounded. Bulworth's own staff is outraged. But the senator is so rejuvenated he begins to regret that he's about to die. So he tries to elude the killer. But just as the American populace fails to see the danger to its democracy, Bulworth fails to identify the face of his attacker.
There's true brilliance in all this. The picture is howlingly funny, easily worth seeing for this reason alone. The laughs keep building long after the scenes featured in the ads. There's the politically incorrect stuff and other gags as well. The whole notion of a middle-age white rapper is a giggle worthy of Peter Sellers at his most ridiculous.
Long underrated as an actor, Beatty is terrific at this fish-out-of-water business. And critically, he doesn't break character even as Bulworth regains life force. Jay Bulworth doesn't become any more a true genius than Sellers' Chance character in Hal Ashby's Being There. Bulworth merely mouths the words of his aides before his transformation. Once into rap mode, he mostly just mouths the words of Nina and others he meets in her company.
Notable for a comedy, Bulworth is exceedingly well-plotted. There are as many twists and turns here as in a thriller. Beatty and Pikser manipulate the storyline like a game of three-card monty. Just when we think we see what's coming, we get blindsided by something else. In the end, we even find ourselves suddenly and unexpectedly moved. All these elements make Bulworth a delightful entertainment. But while you're laughing or shaking your head in appreciation, Beatty is driving home serious points as well. He asks hard questions about the reasonable hopes of those who no longer can rely on industrial labor as a pole to leverage themselves and their families out of poverty, questions about the attendant despair of those seeking jobs that have been relocated to Third World countries. The landscape of American employment is changing without a blueprint for including a meaningful role for all our citizens in the high-tech future that is just before us. In this regard, Beatty dares take seriously that troubling old argument that capitalism visits the inner city most immediately in the drug trade.
Mostly, though, Beatty worries about the changing realities of the American political process. Just as Mike Nichols did in Primary Colors, Beatty notes the role of money in the pursuit of political office. If it takes vast sums of money to win a political campaign, then those with vast sums of money, both corporate and individual, are going to be able to exert disproportionate influence on who wins. Make television time free, Beatty proposes. Yes, of course, executing such an idea would prove more complicated than expressing it. But a lot of what Beatty expresses in Bulworth is well worth serious consideration. And how often can you say that about something emerging from Hollywood?
STARRING: Javier Bardem, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon
DIRECTOR: Manuel Gomez Pereira
I am anything but an expert on the movies of contemporary Spain. But if my limited experience with the works of Pedro Almodovar (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down), Bigas Luna (Jamon, Jamon) and Manuel Gomez Pereira are at all telling, then the Spanish have a delicious affinity for dizzy comedy. Currently in New Orleans is Pereira's Mouth to Mouth, a delightful and funny romp about ambition and fate. The story concerns the life goals of Victor Ventura (Javier Bardem), a young Spanish lad who dreams from childhood of growing up a movie hero. His father was a true hero whose exploits were confined to saving the lives of patrons in Victor's hometown movie theater. As a young adult in the late 1990s, Victor is a classically trained actor relegated to delivering pizzas by motorcycle. When his bike is stolen one night, he decides to give up his dream. But that very day, his hard-working agent, Angela (Maria Barranco), gets him an audition for an American production requiring a handsome Spaniard in the lead. To survive until the audition, Victor takes a job as a provider in a phone sex company, and pretty soon he's the firm's most requested grunt-and-groaner, male as well as female clients. And this job leads him into a bizarre sexual triangle involving blackmail and attempted murder.
There are parts of Mouth to Mouth that prove unbelievable as well as squirmy. In one such scene, Victor, working in his phone sex cubicle, becomes so turned on by a female caller that he retreats to a private booth where he can practice what he preaches only to get a certain tender part of himself painfully caught in his zipper. This sequence is a reach, however, that the rest of the film seldom makes. Much of its humor is far more subtle and far more successful. Angela's requirement that Victor transform his thoroughly contemporary look into the American stereotype of a handsome Spaniard, for instance, is both far funnier and far more credible. For the most part, the picture sustains an enviable, breakneck pace that piles dizzying sequence upon dizzying sequence far faster than we can pause to object to any particular story development.
In the end, the plotting is quite artful. Nothing is as it seems at the beginning, and everything is connected. Victor has been providing phone sex pleasure to "Bill," whose real name is Ricardo (Joseph Maria Flotats), as well as to Amanda (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), who claims to be Ricardo's wife but really isn't. Ricardo wants Victor, who wants Amanda, who wants out of the whole scenario. Somehow, everyone ends up friends, and Victor manages to turn disaster into a dream. Everything comes full circle, and those of us watching want to applaud the sheer audacity of a plot this busy, wild, funny and ultimately satisfying.
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