For over a quarter century, I’ve known Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities only by its reputation. Its very, very bad reputation. The picture belongs in a category along with Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Last Action Hero, Waterworld and others as The Giant Hollywood Bomb. Some (Gate, Waterworld) have gained a better reputation as time has gone on. Bonfire, on the other hand, is barely discussed at all.
I recently had the pleasure of viewing the documentary De Palma, which is a serious treat for movie lovers. In it, the director basically talks for two hours about every one of his features in order. Some are classics or near classics (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way). Some are not (Snake Eyes anyone?). Others received mixed reviews upon initial reaction such as Casualties of War. There’s mainstream hits like Mission: Impossible and mainstream flops like Mission to Mars. Curiosities like Raising Cain and Wise Guys.
Then there’s this. Based upon a celebrated novel by Tom Wolfe, a bulk of the Bonfire criticism came from its significant departures from its source material. Having never read it, I had the benefit of not having to compare it. Unfortunately, it didn’t help much.
After watching this for the first time, it’s easy to get why this was ballyhooed in 1990 as a misguided and miscast effort. The other thing about famous flops is that years later, it’s kind of cool for cinephiles to say it was actually pretty good. For the purposes of this post, I’m not cool.
The star power is significant. Tom Hanks is Sherman McCoy, a yuppie NYC bond trader with a socialite wife (Kim Cattrall) and a southern belle mistress named Maria (Melanie Griffith). One night out with his girlfriend, they take a wrong turn into the Bronx where Maria accidentally hits a young black male and puts him into a coma. They leave the scene but the story doesn’t end there. An intersection of political ambition, religious leader ambition, and journalistic ambition land Sherman in a world of hurt. Chronicling it all is reporter Peter Fallow, played by Bruce Willis with all of his smarm and none of his charm.
Bonfire wants so badly to be an indictment of 1980s greed and shallowness. However, it goes so far in the direction of farce that you can’t take those overtones seriously for one second. By the time a virtuous judge (Morgan Freeman, getting to demonstrate his heavenly voice in one monologue) lectures all the characters on their indecency, we already feel that the message has been browbeaten into us.
One of the biggest complaints of the book to pic adaptation was the softening of the Sherman character into a sympathetic figure (he apparently wasn’t much of one in Wolfe’s writing). While I can’t speak to that, I can only say that Hanks at least has somewhat of a character to work with instead of the caricatures he’s onscreen with. That includes Griffith’s annoying seductress and Cattrall’s nails on chalkboard work as his ultra privileged wife. It includes F. Murray Abraham, yelling his way through the role of the district attorney who wants to be Mayor and John Hancock as a sleazy and media hungry pastor.
Bonfire is an ugly film about mostly ugly people that goes for laughs in an over the top way that isn’t pretty. It was badly received in 1990 and hasn’t aged well due to some racial aspects that couldn’t fly today.
Now… having said all that, I’m glad I finally witnessed what all the mostly forgotten fuss was about. And even in this quite disappointing experience, there are De Palma touches to be appreciated including a fabulous continuous opening shot of Willis entering a party in his honor. Of all the bombs in Hollywood lore, I bet it has the most entertaining and technically impressive first five minutes of them all. Sadly, there’s still two hours that follows after that and most of it solidifies the fire that greeted it.
*1/2 (out of four)