He Got Lame

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. For that matter, no poor Latins -- and this in Los Angeles, no less. But though Beatty celebrates soul as the salvation of the nation, he doesn't have much feeling for the new hip-hop culture. He's playing an uncool sixtyish white guy, and indeed his direction comes across like the work of just such a character.

His idealized view of black power also leads him into some unintentionally laughable terrain. He introduces the character 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 epithets 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 such as these Beatty isn't that far from the mindset of Seventies blaxploitation movies like Superfly, which often had pimps and pushers performing double duty as truth-tellers and victims of "the system." (At one point Beatty actually shows us a movie marquee featuring 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 "Huey Newton fed the kids on my block." It's as if Bulworth can embrace her beauty only 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 clutch each other 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 that corporations lock out free speech, he may be preaching from the heart but he's hardly breaking any 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.

Bulworth.
Directed by Warren Beatty. Written by Warren Beatty and Jeremy Pikser. Starring Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, and Paul Sorvino.

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