The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities PosterOh my God, natives!

The more movies I watch, the more often I seem to find myself on the other side of critical opinion.  Perhaps that’s inevitable for all movie watchers.  As the sample size grows, the amount of overrated films will reach an equilibrium with the amount of underrated films.  Whether one’s individuality increases with one’s disagreement with consensus or not is as hard to justify as it is to assess.  Time flatters plot and writing, so I suspect The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) will only rise in the estimation of audiences.  The critics, however, have spoken and they didn’t say very nice things.  “What a mess” says the Philadelphia Inquirer.  That was not my experience.  The Bonfire of the Vanities struck me as a sound satire about New York in the 1980s, taking aim at all institutions and calling them vultures.  Little has changed.

Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) is a master of the universe.  A great deal-maker on Wall Street with an apartment on Park Avenue with a vacuous socialite (Kim Cattrall) for a wife and a vacuous beauty (Melanie Griffith) for a mistress.  As they say, trouble comes in threes.  First, his wife finds out he’s having an affair.  Second, while driving his mistress to her apartment, they are almost robbed and hit one of these would-be thieves with the car.  Third, Sherman muffs the deal and loses $600 million for his company.  Sadly, the boy who got hit by the car falls into a coma and his illness gets picked up by the Rev. Bacon (John Hancock).  Bacon enlists the aide of a drunk, second-rate journalist, and our narrator, Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis), to spread this over the papers.  This puts District Attorney Weiss (F. Murray Abraham) in a pickle for not tracking down the culprit, so, via Asst. D.A. Kramer (Saul Rubinek), they track down the culprit, who they take to be Sherman.  Now Sherman, once the master of the universe and now chum for the media sharks who all want a piece, must do what he can to save himself.  Now, what we need here, is a machina to ex the deus.

Brian De Palma is not renown for his skill with actors.  If you look over his oeuvre, you might notice that those actors who do well brought their tools along with them.  It may also be noteworthy that the films for which De Palma is especially well known were written by others.  But he is rightfully well known for his visual acumen and Bonfire of the Vanities is certainly further evidence of all three phenomena.  Look on that list of actors–and add Morgan Freeman–and you know there’s skill or, at a minimum, personality there.  The screenplay by Michael Cristofer is based on the novel by Tom Wolfe.  Whatever the critics might tell you, there is certainly the strong odor of a sardonic, biting wit in both verbal and visual language.  In answer to Fallow’s question “Was he an honors student?” a teacher says “Well…he never pissed on me.”  How can a film with a line like that rate a 16% on Rotten Tomatoes?

Its main fault seems to be that it is not as good as the book.  How often have you heard that?  A better question: how often have you heard that from a critic?  Answer: Not often.  But The Bonfire of the Vanities was written by a respected author and critics are allowed to acknowledge (or pretend) that they read it.  I have not read it.  But now I want to.  The film struck me as a compromise screenplay from Joseph Mankiewicz and Spike Lee, directed by Brian De Palma.  Ebert said that the movie doesn’t seem to despise its characters (at least not as much as Wolfe did).  Three character do, undoubtedly, avoid too much judgment and that’s Morgan Freeman’s judge (who I was half disappointed to see go without getting tagged with his own angle), Tom Hank’s Sherman (given a glorious reprieve), and Bruce Willis’s Fallow (who effectively saves the day and profits by it).  I don’t care.  The Bonfire of the Vanities is the right amount of comic caricature in a all-too believable story of a media wave.

Mentioned in this review…

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About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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