It's the tail end of the 1996 California primary election, and incumbent Democratic Senator Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty) is having a nervous breakdown. Sleepless for days, famished, he channel surfs aimlessly in the darkness of his office where, in a rare moment of lucidity, he has an inspiration: He arranges to have a hit man assassinate him.
Suddenly freed from the need to plump for reelection, and expecting the hit to come at any unguarded moment, Bulworth hits the campaign trail with abandon. Delirious but happy, he says exactly what's on his mind--a big no-no in politics, where honesty is not always the best policy.
Framed as a farce, Bulworth begins with this premise and gets stranger and stranger. Beatty not only stars but also served as director, co-producer and co-screenwriter (with Jeremy Pikser). Unavoidably, the film takes on the trappings of a personal manifesto. Bulworth is described in the film as "old liberal wine poured into a new bottle," and that describes Beatty here as well. He's a liberal movie icon--the director of Reds!--trying to air his gripes and passions about America without coming across as a fossil. His farce isn't as daring as he thinks it is, but it's a fascinating spectacle anyway. When Bulworth early on veers off the campaign trail and starts rapping in a South Central club, it's like watching a '60s Stanley Kramer message movie spliced into a hip-hop fever dream. It may not be good, but it sure is different.
Is Beatty trying to commercialize his message-mongering by appealing to urban black movie audiences? Probably not. After all, since when have black ticket-buyers been sure-fire hit-makers? Beatty's courting of that audience might seem crass, but I think the real game here is narcissism. He's playing out a hallowed, white-liberal fantasy of being as black as any soul brother. At the same time, his Jay Bulworth is the liberal Robin Hood of the 'hood who, on behalf of African Americans, carries out raids into the enemy camp.
Taking it upon himself to stand up for all of America's dispossessed, Bulworth soon expands his rap to target the whole shebang: insurance companies, HMOs, television, Hollywood, the conglomerate-owned news media--you name it. As the film lurches along, we get nicked with a steady stream of homilies: "He that pays the piper does the show," and "What we used to call America is going down the drain," or, my favorite, "Everybody's got to keep screwing everybody until we're all the same color." Now that's sexual politics.
Parts of Bulworth play like the work of a politico who feels frantically under siege and needs to get the word out before someone cuts off the juice. There's a hectic quality to the movie, as if Beatty were afraid we weren't getting the joke--or the message. It takes a while to get a fix on what he's up to. In the beginning, Bulworth is portrayed as a hypocrite who, in order to get reelected, goes back on his liberal principles. His campaign spots have him saying things like, "I believe in a hand up, not a handout." He's not even a neo-con--he's a pseudo neo-con. The framed photos in his office of Bulworth with black civil-rights leaders and Bobby Kennedy tell the whole sad then-and-now story.
Speaking in a black church in South Central, Bulworth chucks his standard stump speech--it always begins with "we stand at the doorstep of a new millennium"--and tells an increasingly hostile audience about how his promise of federal funding to the inner cities is just a politics-as-usual sham. Moving on to a Beverly Hills fund raiser, he castigates the Hollywood elite for its garbagey movies and, between chomps on crab-cake hors d'oeuvres, throws in a crack about the Jewishness of the industry.
At this point, we're apparently supposed to regard Bulworth as a cracked vulgarian, and yet Beatty is already nudging us to accept the senator's ravings as a higher truth. Even his name is metaphoric: Bulworth--his bull has worth. The sick joke at the heart of the movie is that, in politics, it takes a loony to level with us. Bulworth alone is unfettered enough to tell it like it is. Beatty plays into the widespread national paranoia that do-gooder politicians are hypocritical toward the poor and that Hollywood is a toxic-waste dump. (Question: If Hollywood is so corrupt, and if corporate conglomerates run everything, what does Beatty think about his movie being distributed by a company, Twentieth Century Fox, controlled by that noted Marxist scholar Rupert Murdoch?)
With all its hip-hop and jive, Bulworth may seem new-style--but actually it's proffering a populism that Frank Capra would have loved. In a movie such as Meet John Doe (1941), Capra gave us his archetypal citizen-politician--a blubbery, guileless Gary Cooper who was such a hayseed he couldn't help but talk straight. In Bulworth, Beatty is harvesting that same old Capracorn, but in place of the hayseed innocent, he gives us the guy who is so much the politician that it deranges him. His only therapy is to spew the "truth."
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 wacked-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 joy ride on his campaign trail (Michele Morgan and Ariyan Johnson) shake up the congregation's starched white choir. Presumably the problem with America is we just don't know how 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 60-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 mindset 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.
Directed by Warren Beatty; with Warren Beatty and Halle Berry.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.