First Time Watch: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)


By Christian DiMartino

The Bonfire of the Vanities is not a disappointment. Oh, do not get me wrong, this is a movie that rarely works, but it is not a disappointment in the sense that this film’s level of disaster is so well-known, I knew what I was walking into. This is not one of the worst films in existence, but it is one of the worst of director Brian De Palma’s films.

De Palma, the master behind Blow Out, Carrie, The Untouchables, Dressed to Kill, and Scarface, is an expert craftsman who can capture just about any genre. Or, well, so we thought. There are shades of humor in his films like Dressed to Kill and Body Double, whereas The Bonfire of the Vanities is, more or less, a satire. The problem here though is that the film is a satire of something, but what that something is is kind of a mystery. In fact, what the film is going for is kind of a mystery, and by the time it reaches its unintentionally funny conclusion (more on that later), we really aren’t sure what to make of it because, well, it didn’t really know what to make of it.

Tom Hanks is of course a national treasure, but he feels out of place here as a Wall Street God named Sherman McCoy. Sherman makes two mistakes early on that set the plot in motion. The first is he accidentally calls his wife (Kim Cattrall) and reveals that he has a mistress. The second occurs one night when he is driving with said mistress, named Maria (Melanie Griffith), and they take a wrong turn that ultimately ends with Sherman and Maria accidentally running over an African American youth. Sherman also makes a key mistake while in police questioning, meanwhile, a group of African American protesters are demanding justice.

So… where to begin. First, Cattrall and Griffith are fine actresses, and yet they give pretty bad performances here. Is it their fault? Perhaps not. Is it a fault of the director? Probably, but it could also be the fault of the material. I have not read the novel, so that is beyond my judgement. That being said, just about every character here, in particular, Cattrall, Griffith, and the African Americans, is cartoonishly over-the-top. They act as if they are aware they are in a comedy. Again though, I ask: where is the joke? What is the joke? That no matter what happens, successful white people will prevail? Your guess is as good as mine.

Something had to have drawn De Palma, Hanks, Griffith, Cattrall, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and F. Murray Abraham to this material… but what was it? The screenplay never really gels. Much of the time, the film left me in puzzlement of what it was trying to say or do. There is also barely a performance here that feels right. Hanks’ performance isn’t bad, necessarily, but by the time he is seen wielding a shotgun around a party that is celebrating him, firing rounds, into the ceiling, it’s pretty plain to see that this material wasn’t suited for him, and most of his roles suit him well.

The film is messy, and not as funny as it thinks it is. Also, for a film deliberately about bad taste, the movie doesn’t really have much fun with these unpleasant folk. All of this builds to, I have to say, one of the most laughably phoned-in final monologues I have ever heard. Freeman, who plays a judge, addresses the courtroom after making his verdict, and encourages everyone in the room to try being nice. Freeman is of course a legend, and in another movie, sure, I might have bought it. Here though, boy did I not, because literally nothing else in the movie comes close to form an idea along these lines. Much of the film is focused on the glory of bad people (I suppose, if I were to find meaning in it), so the film’s final call to action is to… disregard the bad taste? Not only is it unconvincing, but it feels like a last-ditch effort to add meaning to a film that didn’t really know what the hell it was doing in the first place.

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