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The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990)

An outrageous story of greed, lust and vanity in America

Directed by:

Brian De Palma

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 125 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

On DVD

It’s fairly obvious upon watching ‘The Bonfire Of The Vanities’ that this is a decent film: nothing more, nothing less. So why, then, was it so universally slated by critics at the time of its big screen release? The answer, it would seem, is the overwhelming popularity of the piece of literature it was based on, Tom Wolfe’s novel of the same name.

Personally, I watched the movie without having read the book, which could be seen as both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, it allows me to judge the film as exactly that – a film, with no other conflicting point of reference to cloud my opinions. On the other, it means I’m pretty much ignorant as to whether or not the screen version succeeds or fails in living up to its story’s potential.

Bruce Willis is our narrator as sozzled journo Peter Fallow. In order to save a career vanishing swiftly down the U-bend, he takes on the story of Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks), a Wall Street “Master of the Universe” who’s inadvertently become a pawn in the racially-charged game of local politics. You see, while out driving one night with his bit-on-the-side Maria (Melanie Griffith), Sherman’s car mows down a black youth, making him a perfect scapegoat for scheming politicians looking for a successful white man to make an example of. But, as Fallow soon discovers, Sherman isn’t as guilty as everybody wants him to be.

So, you’ve guessed it – this is satire. Practically every character in the film has their own vested interests: the black community want to see this white man banged up, the politicians want their votes, Fallow wants the exclusive, and it looks like the only way for the real truth to come out is for Sherman to lie. It’s a clever story, not always particularly well-told by director Brian De Palma, but nonetheless interesting to watch unfold.

My main criticism of it would be that, perhaps surprisingly given the names involved, too many of the characters are mis-cast. Hanks never comes across as either ruthless or cunning enough to be the high-flyer we’re supposed to take him as, Kim Cattrall displays some horrendous over-acting as his embittered spouse, and Willis eventually struggles to hold the attention despite kicking off the movie as one of its most interesting characters. Only Griffith, and Morgan Freeman as a no-nonsense judge, seem suited to their roles.

Granted, this film is far from a classic. But at the same time it hardly seems deserving of the outright vitriol often aimed in its direction. Perhaps it’s best put down to another example of Hollywood getting it wrong: instead of making adaptations of books everybody loves, why not give the big screen treatment to the rubbish ones? That way the end result can only be an improvement on the original, and everyone’s happy.

It's Got: A nice analogy about cake crumbs.

It Needs: A good lawyer.

DVD Extras Nothing here. Now THAT’S something to complain about. DVD Extras Rating: 0/10

Alternatives:

Trading Places

Summary

A fairly entertaining slice of satire, this really isn’t as bad as it’s often made out to be.

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