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Looking Back: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

I’ve never encountered a movie flopping with a louder, more surprising thud than Brian De Palma’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990). Film buffs can usually detect these things coming, as the months leading up to release can often give red flags, leaked word of mouth or tell-tale trailers that the film in question is a turkey. With “Bonfire,” its reception snuck up on me and most of America. I remember exactly where I was when I found out “Bonfire” was in trouble: I was boarding a plane and was handed a complimentary copy of USA Today. The Life section had a one-star review of “Bonfire” on its cover and a still of the film, with star Tom Hanks behind bars. It was if he and the whole movie were immediately sent to cinema penitentiary for life, with no chance for parole.

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Other than word that De Palma (actually, his screenwriter, Michael Cristofer) had changed the ending Tom Wolfe had written for his phenomenal 1987 novel (upon which the film is based), the early word was stellar. Leading up to its December opening, right in time for Oscar season, “Bonfire” was believed to be a potential Best Picture contender. Everyone in the cast was coming off career highs: Hanks was a recent Oscar nominee for “Big,” Bruce Willis had scored with “Die Hard,” Melanie Griffith was coming off her Oscar-nomination for “Working Girl,” and co-star Morgan Freeman had just appeared in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Even De Palma, whose previous “Casualties of War” was a much respected flop, still had the polish of “The Untouchables” from a few years earlier.

I am no cinematic parole officer, as the movie is even harder to watch today than it was in 1990. Many of the legendarily bad reviews it received (“More Like a Bomb-fire of Inanities!”) were truly mean. Yet, twenty-five years after its brief run as a Christmas-event-film-turned-national-punch-line, only a few 1990 movies (particularly “Problem Child” and “Ghost Dad”) were worse. I’m among the millions who read Wolfe’s novel, found it extraordinary, saw the film and wondered if anyone involved had read the book.

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The opening scenes immediately demonstrate that something’s off, as a beautiful, time-lapse shot of New York City fades into De Palma’s much-discussed, minutes-long, unbroken tracking shot. Beginning in the basement of the World Trade Center into its massive, exquisite lobby, we see Bruce Willis playing tabloid journalist Peter Fallow, stumbling drunk and being guided to the unveiling of a press event, celebrating his novel. Willis’ severely overdone narration begins, and its accompanied by David Shire’s dishearteningly generic score. Willis’ voice over, which carries on throughout the film, sounds exactly like his cutesy, what-me-worry voiceover as the baby in “Look Who’s Talking.” The normally delightful Rita Wilson plays Willis’ press agent at such a manic pitch, with dialog so overtly cartoonish, it undoes the magic of De Palma’s cleverly designed and choreographed camera work. We’re stuck with obnoxious characters in an unending shot, with only the technique of the filmmaking holding our attention (which, come to think of it, is exactly like watching “Birdman”).

We then push in on Hanks as Sherman McCoy, the film’s hero, a stock broker and “master of the universe,” whose life takes a crucial and literal wrong turn. McCoy picks up his mistress (Griffith) from the airport, gets lost in “the hood” and strikes a young African-American with his car. The hit and run haunts McCoy, who is quickly discovered to be the culprit. With his career in free-fall, Fallow and his ilk swoop in, picking apart the morsels of the circus, shaping and influencing the outcome of the sensational trial and news coverage that follows.

THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, from left: Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, 1990. ©Warner Brothers

The filmmaking is dazzling but often shrill, like everything else here. The quirky choices by the cinematographer are eye catching but they’re capturing performances that would feel broad in an opera. This is as ham-fisted as De Palma’s “Wise Guys” (1986), as he pushes the caricatured quality of the characters to an off-putting extreme. Much of this is plays like those bad, mid- 1980’s “Saturday Night Live” sketches that didn’t have Eddie Murphy to save them.

This is a good time to mention the crucial miscasting. While Kim Cattrell, Saul Rubinek and F. Murray Abraham all give loud, smug supporting turns, at least, on the surface, they appeared to be a good match for their characters. The four leads offer star power but never fully connect with the material. Hanks ably played dark roles later on but as McCoy, he’s too nice, doesn’t convey the character’s lust or greed and frequently overacts to compensate for how out of place he is. In his establishing scenes, Hanks doesn’t appear to belong on Wall Street. To think what Michael Douglas, in his prime as the face of 80’s guilt and excess, could have done with this.

THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, from left: Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, 1990. ©Warner Brothers

Since Fallow was British in Wolfe’s hands, it makes sense that Willis is playing him as a New Yorker and not attempting a cockney accent (on page, the role screams out for Michael Caine). Griffith certainly oozes desire but her Southern accent is all over the place. Freeman brings the expected, authoritative weight to his scenes as the judge (Wolfe’s white, racist Judge Kovitsky becomes the righteous, voice of reason Judge White on film). Noted New Yorkers George Plimpton, Andre Gregory, Alan King and Richard Belzer pop up in small roles, suggesting a grit and lived-in authenticity that De Palma should have strived for but didn’t.

The story lurches forward when it should have been fast-paced. Wolfe’s edgy, provocative material provided rich social commentary and seemed to predict both Tawana Brawley and the L.A. riots. Wolfe may have used satire to shape his story but the New York of his novel is the recognizably colorful, scary and unstable gotham of the 1980’s. The city during that decade, the age of Mayor Ed Koch, subway shooter Bernhard Goetz, when everyone was reading Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” and Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, and it’s pre-TRL, unsafe Times Square, was an unsafe place for tourists (and everyone else). Wolfe recognized the volatile, contradictory qualities of The Big Apple and, while a time capsule in some respects, his novel taps into both the divide and corruption of wealth and excess.

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The film, on the other hand, brought the story to the screen with the edges sanded down. Character actor John Hancock plays Reverend Bacon, the film’s thinly guised spoof of both Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. It’s an ugly caricature, in a movie overflowing with them, but Hancock’s portrayal displays neither Sharpton nor Jackson’s charisma or showmanship. Freeman’s infamous, climactic “Be Decent To Each Other” speech is a stinker, as is the rushed manner in which the movie ends.

The savage moments that break through feel out of place. At one point, McCoy describes another character as “a poet, he has AIDS, you’ll love him!” The line should have satirical sting but just comes out all mean spirited. There’s an opera scene that, strangely, has an unmistakable and unfavorable similarity to the extraordinary opera scene from “Philadelphia,” in which the pain in the music and the suffering of Hanks’ audience member congeal. The only scene that has any emotional impact is when Donald Moffat, playing McCoy’s father, confronts him before his trial. It’s the one moment that feels real. Considering the subsequent, uninhibited portrayals of Me Decade excess, particularly “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Psycho,” it’s not unimaginable that a filmmaker could still tame Wolfe’s “Bonfire” and bring its flickering flame to the silver screen.

Wolfe’s novel was ahead of its time, while De Palma’s movie merely reflects the fate it met at the box office. Whereas Hank’s McCoy was eviscerated by the press and mocked openly in newsprint, the film was greeted by journalists all too happy to trample the film to death. It provided a real life commentary on how the film, and its subject matter, died at the hands of writers, acting like vultures with vocabularies. In the cinematic hall of shame, few infernos burned brighter than the “Bonfire.”

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