Brian De Palma Month: “The Bonfire of the Vanities”

With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 16%, a box office loss of $31 million, an IMDb rating of 5.6, and 5 Razzie nominations (including Worst Picture and Worst Director); it’s safe to say that this pathetic failure is Brian De Palma’s worst film.  Why am I doing this again?  Something about “for every positive, there is negative?”  Mhm, sure.  Let’s go over why this movie is highly regarded as one of the worst movies of all time.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is directed by Brain De Palma and written by Michael Cristofer.  Stars-Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Kim Cattrall, Bruce Willis, and Morgan Freeman.  Premise-A New York aristocrat’s (Tom Hanks) mistress (Melanie Griffith) runs over a black teen.  Resulting in the downfall of his cushy life, the revitalized career of a depressed reporter (Bruce Willis), and a whole lot of social injustice.  Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s novel of the same name.

I have not read Wolfe’s book, but after what I’ve seen, it is most likely better than this movie.  This is one of those movies where literally everything is wrong.  The movie opens with a promising tracking shot of reporter Peter Fallow (Willis) on the way to accept an award for his highly successful book on the fall of aristocrat Sherman McCoy (Hanks).  Unfortunately, the movie quickly deflates from then on.  We get some narration (done by a half-hearted Bruce Willis) that shows us how we got to this point.  This narration largely disappears after this opening scene, so that was pointless!  Hey writers, I have an idea: why don’t you just *GASP* start the movie at the beginning?  Whatever.  We are then introduced to Sherman McCoy.  He is your stereotypical “rich white guy in New York” caricature.  He has a socialite wife (Kim Cattrall), a personality-lacking daughter, and a high-class hooker/mistress (Melanie Griffith) who he has a private affair with.

This brings me to my first criticism; the acting in this movie is horrendous!  Aside from Morgan Freeman, everyone in this movie is either: perplexingly robotic, laughably over-the-top, or not even trying.  This was early on in Hanks’ career, but he must have gotten no direction because he is fumbling around most of the time.  My “favorite” scene with him is when he uses a hunting rifle to escort people out of his apartment.  Willis and Cattrall aren’t even trying (especially Cattrall), and Griffith has to act like a southern ditz for two hours straight.  In an interview, De Palma said “It’s always the director’s [casting] call.”  Almost every actor you see in this movie was not the first option.  Wolfe wanted Chevy Chase to play McCoy, Willis is not British (unlike the character in the book), and Freeman was cast purely because the producers wanted some ethnic diversity in this controversial story (at least De Palma went with that).  These were a few of the many decisions that alienated fans of the book, as well as general audiences, from the movie.

Over the course of his (over four-decade-long) career, De Palma has been nominated for five Worst Director Razzies (one of which was for Scarface, which is ridiculous).  None of those is more deserved than the one he got for Bonfire of the Vanities.  Not only is the cast missing instructions, this is an ugly-looking movie.  The color pallets they used (this was a $47 million production so it wasn’t poor quality equipment) make the movie look dingy and gross.  Stephen H. Burum abuses wide-angle lenses to nauseating degrees, and the overall tone is without emotion.  Oh, yeah.  Did I mention this is a comedy?  I found little humor in this movie and the scenarios it sets up.  A Clockwork Orange is funnier than this movie, and it is also a dark comedy with unlikable characters and social commentary.

While I consider Bonfire a pathetic pile of Hollywoodized garbage, there are a few minor elements that deserve respect.  Actually there is just one thing that deserves respect; Morgan Freeman.  He plays the judge who takes up McCoy’s case.  It could just be Freeman’s inability to give a poor performance, but his intensity and dialogue is incredible.  He gives an excellent speech at the end of the film about corruption, racism, and politics.  I rewatched this scene multiple times because my mind couldn’t believe anything this good could have come from the movie I was watching.  Despite the terrible camerawork and Freeman’s lack of hair (I really don’t know why they chose to make him bald), he still shines but his limited screentime can’t save the movie.

There has been a book written about this disasterpiece (The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood or The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco).  The reason why Bonfire fails so miserably is because it has something to say, but has no idea how to say it.  Mission to Mars was bad, but that was a disposable sci-fi flick, this movie is an adaptation with adult themes and serious consequences.  The dialogue feels fake, the actors have no direction, the commentary is botched, and the humor is nonexistent.  I found myself shouting, “You’re all awful people!” at the screen many times.  If the movie was less insistent on trying to please every audience member and committed to the book’s tone and darkness, it could have been better.  De Palma made great efforts to make this movie more acceptable to the average Joe, but all it did was neuter the message.  The Bonfire of the Vanities gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an F.

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