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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

Country: United States

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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2 Comments

  1. John Streby
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 1:02 am | Permalink

    It was gratifying to finally see a kind word said about “Bonfire.” I agree that it never did deserve the vitriol that it got upon its release some 20 years ago. Perhaps the overall level of satire is exaggerated in the film; perhaps with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, parts of the story could have been told with more subtlety, but on the whole, it was and is a highly entertaining film. What I found especially intruiging is the fact that Reverend Bacon, a major character in the novel, foretold with amazing prescience, the absurd spectacle of Reverand Al Sharpton, aided and abetted by two unethical lawyers, who used the bizarre Tawana Brawley case as a steppingstone to infamy. No matter how much Rev. Sharpton has cleaned up his act, his masterminding of that spectacle, in which innocent persons were accused of unspeakable wrongdoing, should never be forgotten. As mentioned in this entlightened review, “Bonfire” is the story of multiple agendas and how they converge to destroy an innocent man. That overall theme was at least a part of the inspiration for my 2002 novel, “Rabbit Stew,” which dealt with an innocent young black man, forced into a crime spree by a pair of white-trash hooligans, and left to take the rap alone when they escape. This unfortunate fellow must face a prosecutor hoping for a judicial appointment, a corrupt judge, and a headline-mongering newspaper. For his ability to satirize bad human behavior across the socioeconomic spectrum, I admire Tom Wolfe, and his pungent take was a huge inspiration to me. I urge both the book and the film to anyone with an interest in mores, public corruption, the exploitation of the race card, and other dysfunctional aspects of modern society.

  2. Posted November 14, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed your review of Bonfire. I definitely agree that the mis-casting of characters is problematic.Willis’ character Farrow ends up being a great disappointment, especially when contrasted with the uniqueness that he gives off in Wolfe’s book.

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