‘Ello everyone! Bonfire of the Vanities? More like Bonfire of the Banalities. I had a tough time figuring this movie out, and I’ll tell you why. Let’s go.
- The Good – For much of the movie it is well acted. I was rather impressed with Hanks, Willis (surprisingly), and especially Melanie Griffith. It is, for decent stretches, at least fascinating. I would say I was more confused as to whether this was supposed to our world or a truly surreal satirical take on our world, and perhaps that is what kept my attention, but there were certainly bits I did like.
- The Bad – Where to begin … I mean, I know this movie is a satire, but it does come across as genuinely racist. Like it is painting a picture of a world it imagines exists and then takes the unfortunate tack of taking down the strawman caricatures it creates, as if that is meaningful. I kept grasping at things, trying to think how I could make the movie better in some tangible way, but the unfortunate thing is: without reading the book I didn’t know! I knew the movie’s approach couldn’t be the book’s angle because it would have been torn down and cast out of society with vigor. But how it differed I didn’t know. Reading the IMDb notes and realizing they were forced to recast the judge as black (Morgan Freeman) makes oh so much sense. At times I really couldn’t believe what I was watching. I found it shocking. I knew it was supposed to be satire, but it is so weak that occasionally you get lulled into the sense that you are watching a real movie only to be shaken awake by angry and awful people and actions. I found the first half of the film stressful, and the second half unpleasant (if slowly relieving as you realize that things are kind of going to way you’d expect them to go). So there you go. I did not think this is was not that bad, but perhaps that is the mood I was in, willing to take this silly movie a bit too seriously. And yet my feelings seem to mirror the critical reception at the time, so I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt.
- BMT – I’ll keep this short. I thought it was boring, but shocking enough to warrant a solid 25 and maybe (maybe) I’d throw it to someone with the tentative recommendation that you are watching a truly strange movie come to life. I do kind of want to read the book about the making of this movie. It must have been simply bonkers.
Let’s see. Sequel/Prequel/Reboot would be fun to try and figure out who would play all of the people in a reboot made this year (plus, hey, it’s not like we are having a serious discussion on race in the United States at the moment …). So in the Tom Hanks role I wanted someone with that boyish charm, who can play someone you kind of want to hate a bit, and as close to 35 as possible (a believable age for the social position Hanks was in in the movie), and I think Andrew Garfield in that role would work really well. You could definitely believe him on Wall Street and then sympathize as his world falls apart around him. Bruce Willis comes across a lot older than he actually is (also 35 at the time), but also the literal alcohol character is tough to pull off I feel like these days, they are either now much older or the perpetual party boy type deal (like Miles Teller in The Spectacular Now). I went a little older and found Danny McBride which I think could work, even has the comedy chops if they wanted to go that direction again. Jeremy Renner or Joel Edgerton could both work as well. Scarlett Johansson in the Griffith role rounds out the important bits. Recast Freeman in his own role and you got a stew cooking.
There isn’t much beyond the three leads to make this movie again if they cared. The rest of the cast you could debate back and forth, but really that is unimportant compared to actually getting the tone right.
As we finish our Now A Major Motion Picture cycle heading into our transition week, I can start to think retrospectively about the collection of books that I’ve (largely suffered) through. In most cases the books and the films were either very similar, bordering on straight adaptations (Pinocchio, Phantoms, The Choice, and The 5th Wave) or wildly different (Fair Game, Get Carter, and Random Hearts). The Bonfire of the Vanities stands out because it’s not really in either category. The first half of the film is basically a straight adaptation, with only minor changes to how characters look or behave. Halfway through the film though, it veers wildly off course. Starting from a scene where our main character Sherman McCoy wanders out of a courtroom in which he has been indicted on charges of reckless endangerment, we, as the audience, also wander helplessly from a film that made some sense, to one that makes no sense. I was so confused by the tone change at that point (anchored by what I knew from the book) that I actually assumed for a while that what we were seeing was a dream sequence (spoiler alert: not the case). It seems at this point that the filmmaker decided that he no longer liked the film he was making (probably because all the characters are terrible people) and decided that the movie needed some bucking up. Let’s all of sudden make Peter Fallow a hero (rather than the shitty pulp tabloid man that he is in the book), let’s have Sherman comically brandish a shotgun in a crowded party, and let’s make the climax of the film be the just acquittal of our valiant hero (!!!) Sherman McCoy. In the book this climax was just only in that it took all the shitty, vain people involved in the story and destroyed them all in a blaze of glory. In the film none of the characters are developed enough to convey this (and the ones that are developed have been developed into nicer, softer characters) so that the climax is played straight. Gross.
Funny enough this probably wouldn’t have made a difference to me if I hadn’t read the book. I wondered if I would have thought the film was well-acted and well-written (albeit a bit aimless), and produced in that Hollywood way to make it pleasant enough. I thought that I might have even said It’s Not That Bad.™ With the book, though, it seemed like a disaster. In the end I think Patrick and I agreed though. The fact of the matter is that the book is considerably more shocking in its racism than the film and in that way you can see the satire. It creates caricatures of real NYC dwellers of the time, but magnifies the hidden racism that roils beneath in order to satirize the institutions in the city (police, law, finance, politics). But how the film reigned back the exaggeration and dared to soften the McCoy and Fallow characters destroys the satire and in turn makes it simple offensive. Basically, I was wrong in my assumption that I might not be offended if I didn’t have the book to anchor me. His recap proves that I would have probably been even more offended.
Perhaps it’s a byproduct of all these films being based on books, but we’ve had a nice little run of films with very distinct settings for Settings 101. Once again we have a film that gets an A! In this case The Bonfire of the Vanities is a takedown of the New York City elite. Obviously they couldn’t change the setting or else the entire message would be lost (instead they just lost the message through shitty character development). We get several shots of the New York skyline, a close-up shot of Sherman McCoy’s New York license plate, clear “Manhattan” and “Bronx” highway signs, and a climax that centers around the idea of a white Manhattanite running over an African American youth in The Bronx. Kinda hovers a bit between A- and A as there isn’t really a distinct New York landmark used as a prop. But as the setting itself is vital to the plot and unchangeable, I give it the A. Once again, misses out on the coveted A+ by not having the setting in the title of the film.