It's the tail end of the 1996 California primary election campaign 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. 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 re-election, and expecting the hit to come at any moment, Bulworth sets out on 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. Unavoidably, because of the way Beatty -- who not only stars but also serves as director, co-producer, and co-screenwriter (with Jeremy Pikser) -- encourages the connection between himself and Bulworth, 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 1981's 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 early in the proceedings Bulworth veers off the campaign trail and starts rapping in a South Central L.A. club, it's like watching a Sixties 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 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 is narcissism. He's playing out a hallowed, white-liberal fantasy of being as black as any soul brother.
Taking it upon himself to stand up for all of America's dispossessed, Bulworth soon targets 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 what I call sexual politics.
There's a hectic quality to the movie, as if Beatty were afraid we weren't going to get the joke -- or the message. It takes awhile to get a fix on what he's up to. In the beginning Bulworth is portrayed as a hypocrite who, in order to get re-elected, retreats from 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 neocon -- he's a pseudo neocon. The framed photos in Bulworth's office of him 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 -- which always begins with "We stand at the doorstep of a new millennium" -- and tells an increasingly hostile audience about how his promises of federal funding for the inner cities have been just a politics-as-usual sham. Moving on to a Beverly Hills fundraiser, he castigates the Hollywood elite for its garbage-y movies and, between chomps on crabcake 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 higher truths. 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 paranoia that do-gooder politicians are hypocritical toward the poor and that Hollywood is a toxic-waste dump.
With all its hip-hop and jive, Bulworth may seem new-style, but it's actually 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 guileless Gary Cooper who was such a hayseed he couldn't help but talk straight. 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 quasiobjectionable 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 whacked-out rap master in a hip-hop club, lusting after the beautiful, imperious Nina (Halle Berry), who commends him for his candidness and leads him on. Now that he's a soulman there's no stopping him. He tries to get the hit against him canceled. He unloads bombshells in the white 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 joyride on his campaign wagon (Michele Morgan and Ariyan Johnson) shake up the congregation's starched white choir. Presumably the problem with America is we just don't know 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. 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.
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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.
Directed by Warren Beatty. Written by Warren Beatty and Jeremy Pikser. Starring Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, and Paul Sorvino.