On seeing the outrageous previews for Bulworth one wonders what plot could possibly allow Beatty get away with making those statements (In case you missed it, Warren Beatty plays a politician on the campaign trail. He says to a black congregation “...if you can’t cut down on malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind someone other than a running back who stabs his wife, you’re never gonna get rid of me.”)
Well, there is such a plot, and it works very well in this comedy. Beatty plays Jay Billington Bulworth, a long-time Democratic senator from California. The movie opens on a painfully repetitious montage of Bulworth’s latest commercials condemning affirmative action. The montage is ironically intercut with pictures of Martin Luther King and Bulworth in his youth working with Jack Kennedy. When we finally lay eyes on Bulworth he is morosely weeping in front of his TV, having gone without food or sleep for days.
His campaign is entering the final weekend before the primaries but his depression has sunk in too far for him to care. First he calls a lobbyist from the insurance industry to get a bribe — a $10 million life insurance policy in his daughter’s name. Then he calls an associate to arrange for his own assassination. His assistant Murphy (Oliver Platt) is oblivious to Bulworth’s suicidal state and drags him to his speaking engagements.
Bulworth halfheartedly reads his speech at an African-American church, then takes questions from the audience. He is hit hard with questions about his voting record. He had promised money to help rebuild the community after the riots, and it hasn’t shown up.
Since he’s a dead man anyway, he figures he’ll answer truthfully: he and Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich came to L.A. for the photo opportunity. They made some promises that improved their public image for a while, and then counted on the media and the public to eventually forget about the promises they made. The shock and outrage from the congregation grows, the questions keep coming, and he keeps shooting back honest, if ugly, answers.
(Before I go further, I’d like to make a distinction that the Denver Post failed to make, and that is that characterizing African-Americans as malt-liquor drinking O.J. fans is not part of Bulworth’s “truth.” That line is in the trailers but it should not be praised like the other political confessions he makes in the movie. When the critics praise Beatty for speaking the truth about politics, this line is not what they’re talking about.)
The experience is liberating. With nothing left to lose, Bulworth is no longer restricted to burping generic platitudes out of both sides of his mouth. He can say whatever he wants because he’s going to be dead anyway. Why not tell the people the truth about being a sleazy politician — that he is bought and paid for by lobbyists, and that racism among the populace protects politicians from being the target of charges of classism?
Bulworth’s candor wins him three volunteers from the church, one of whom, Nikki (Halle Barry), he gets a crush on. He feels so good afterwards that he actually eats something. Chicken wings, appropriately enough.
Bulworth shows up late for his meeting with some movie studio executives. When one of them asks where he stands on government regulation of movie and TV ratings, Bulworth drifts to the topic of the quality of filmed entertainment. With so much money and so many talented people working so hard, he wonders, why can’t Hollywood make a quality product. (You go, Warren!) When they become indignant and ask why he’s talking to them if he has such a low opinion of their product, he callously admits that it’s because they are rich Jews.
That night he drops the three African-American volunteers at their nightclub, and he decides to go in with them. He stays up all night drinking, smoking pot, dancing, falling in love with Nikki, and learning to scratch turntables and rap.
The next day, he shuns his prepared speech and instead raps to the suit-and-tie fundraisers. From then on, at all of his political appearances, he raps his political truth. His rap is not bad for a middle-aged white guy. He’s not very good, but it is his first try and at least he’s not embarrassingly bad. His lobbyists are not amused, but the rest of his constituency seems to like the new Bulworth.
Eventually, the movie’s plot (remember he hired a hit man?) overtakes the politics, which is too bad. Screen time is spent with Bulworth trying to cancel the request for his assassination while the hit man seems to be closing in on him. There are even a few gratuitous chase scenes, Bulworth fleeing his killer. These scenes may have been necessary to keep the events of the film moving along, but it distracted and detracted from Bulworth’s political ranting, which was much more interesting than the ever-present, obvious-looking assassin.
Still, most of the movie is original and very enjoyable, and Beatty deserves most of credit for bringing it to the screen. As the story and screen writer, he came up first with a good structure, then with good dialogue to back it up (Jeremy Pikser co-wrote the screenplay). As an actor, he was able to convincingly portray Bulworth’s depression, then liberation and rebirth. As a producer (there were four others) he was able to keep the movie free from Hollywood’s indulgent formulas (except for those inexcusable chase scenes). Someone else probably could have directed, but since he was there anyway, what the heck.
It’s too bad that there aren’t more movies like this around — movies that tackle political corruption in a way that challenges viewers to pay more attention to real politics. After all, much of the inspiration for Bulworth is straight out of the news. Just a little perception and insight and you could write your own Bulworth rants. Just don’t expect to be popular with the insurance companies.