Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Year 9, Day 92 - 4/2/17 - Movie #2,586

BEFORE: Yesterday was a day for chores, namely getting my laundry done before t-shirt season (hey, I say if you wear a long-sleeve thermal shirt underneath, it's ALWAYS t-shirt season) and finally sorting our receipts for the tax return, a process delayed by the office move and other things.  There's still over two weeks to file, but after sorting a quick pass through the 1040 form revealed that for once, I haven't got a clue on some things, like the form for the Health Insurance Savings account, and those 4 new boxes on my wife's W-2 form that relate to 401K and various employer contributions to things, so we made an appointment to go see someone today.  At least I admit when I'm in over my head, and this sort of thing is too important to screw up.

Let me stick to what I know best - winding my way through my DVD collection, looking for the best chain.  Now I could have gone in a couple different directions from "Regarding Henry", for example, I just recorded "Ice Age: Collision Course" with the voice of John Leguizamo.  But that doesn't really fit thematically, and it may not get me where I need to be for Easter, so I'm going to follow this track instead - Donald Moffat carries over from yesterday's film.  It's a little like knowing that technically, a tomato is a fruit, but being smart enough to treat it like a vegetable and to not put it in a fruit salad.

THE PLOT: After his mistress runs over a teen, a Wall Street hotshot sees his life unravel in the spotlight, attracting the interest of a down-and-out reporter

AFTER: OK, some background before I begin.  "The Bonfire of the Vanities" was a super-huge novel (I mean popular, not in page count) written by Tom Wolfe and published in 1987.  First it was serialized in Rolling Stone magazine, much in the way Dickens novels were published in parts.  And it may have been the seminal novel of the 1980's because of its focus on yuppies.  OK, some more background, "yuppies" was what we called rich entitled white people back then, it stood for Young Urban Professionals, and we were all supposed to hate them, while pretending that we weren't envious and trying to become them.  The title of the book, which was NOT explained in the film (perhaps it was in the book, who knows, I never read it...) refers to the religious practice of burning objects that authorities deemed to be sinful, though the tie-in with vain yuppies was possibly a happy accident.  (It does not refer to the infamous 1938 Nazi purge of forbidden bathroom fixtures, also referred to as K√∂hlernacht...)

I can't speak to the tone of the novel, but there's something very flawed with the film, and I think that was reflected in the box office, as this is largely considered one of the biggest movie flops, critically and commercially, so what went wrong?  Or, put another way, did anything go right?  I'm going to surmise that the book was a serious look at race relations, politics, and personal greed in 1980's New York, and the film was made more like a comedy.  (Geez, it's like the real-life "Sweet Liberty", right?)  The acting is over-the-top, when it's not just plain bad, and it seems like the filmmakers were relying on two scenes with Melanie Griffith in lingerie to put asses in the seats.  Maybe they shouldn't have asked a director known mostly for horror and action films, like "Dressed to Kill" and "The Untouchables" to tackle a serious topical drama about relevant modern issues, who can say?

Let me take another step back for a second, and reference one of my favorite films, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", a comedy from 1963 about a bunch of people racing around Southern California, looking for a dead criminal's lost treasure.  It's a silly slapstick comedy, it was never meant to be taken seriously, and it featured a lot of actors known for television work (Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams) who were trying to break into big-screen movies.  It was OK there to have very expressive comic actors, acting larger-than-life, because it just added to the comedy.  But here in "Bonfire", hiring actors like Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis, who were also known at the time for their TV work, was a bad choice.  It seems they hadn't yet learned that in dramatic films, less is often more, and that you have to approach a serious movie differently than you would, say, "Bosom Buddies". (OK, so Tom Hanks had been in "The Money Pit" and "Turner and Hooch", those were still slapstick comedies - and Bruce Willis had been in "Blind Date" and "Die Hard", but I think the principle still applies.).

Now, let me get to the plot, because this is why I'm proud I went in this direction after "Regarding Henry" - both films are about rich, entitled, assholic white guys (lawyer, bond trader, whatever) who have an accident (robbery, car accident) and have their whole life turned upside-down.  Scandal, infidelity, financial ruin, relationship problems follow.  But this one follows the whole court case, as Sherman McCoy is eventually tracked down as the owner of a car that struck down a black teen in the Bronx (after an unfortunate wrong turn - a Manhattanite accidentally getting off the highway in a bad neighborhood) and after a lot of political posturing, we follow him through the legal system, the trial and the resulting scandals in the newspapers.

Again, this is not my area of expertise, but it felt like some things were just out of order here.  Like the way we were introduced to the stern, unorthodox judge long before McCoy's trial - it's the worst form of telegraphing what's coming up, when we're used to the "Law & Order" method of things, with a police investigation in the first half and a trial in the second.  Similarly, the way that the police approach the district attorney so early in the story, like the day after the accident.  This was very confusing, because the police basically have no leads, no evidence, no case, so why bring a whole bunch of nothing to the D.A.?  Shouldn't they have spent a few days on the actual investigation before contacting the legal system to say, "Hey, we got nothing..."?  Whatever happened to good old detective work, couldn't they have interviewed witnesses and run the license plate without instructions from the D.A., isn't that what police are trained to do?

Then we've got the notion that the district court in the Bronx is somehow, as a whole, tired of prosecuting minority offenders, and just itching, in advance somehow, to prosecute a white guy.  Again, telegraphing - it's as if the D.A. skipped ahead a few chapters in the book just to see what was coming up later.  Besides, that's racist, and these are professionals who are supposed to try criminals without regard for race.  The fact that it's an election year shouldn't cause the D.A. to seek out a white criminal to put on trial - in seeking out a defendant of a particular race to prove that he's not racist, he ends up sounding more racist than ever.  This character, and many others in the film, like the black preacher, just seemed so much like caricatures, essentially like live-action cartoons.

I get that everyone wants to use this case for their own personal financial or political gain - the attorneys want the prestige, the reporter wants to break a big story, the preacher wants justice for the community, and this may be the only part of the story that rings true, but it's how you get there that counts.  Some parts were just WAY too coincidental and contrived, like how the reporter got the information about who was driving the car, or why that secret conversation got recorded.  As if.  Plus it's not really a judge's job to pass judgment on everyone in his courtroom, he's really supposed to just stick to judging the defendant.

Turns out that entire books have been written about the difficult journey this story had, going from novel to screen, and I suspect that more than anything, it has to do with having too many cooks in the kitchen, and trying to appease everyone involved, which, more often than not, just isn't possible.

Also starring Tom Hanks (last seen in "Volunteers"), Bruce Willis (last seen in "The Prince"), Melanie Griffith (last seen in "Night Moves"), Saul Rubinek (last seen in "Sweet Liberty"), Morgan Freeman (last seen in "Now You See Me 2"), Kim Cattrall (last seen in "Unforgettable"), John Hancock, Kevin Dunn (last seen in "Jobs"), Clifton James (last seen in "The Chase"), F. Murray Abraham (last seen in "The Big Fix"), Alan King (last seen in "Cat's Eye"), Beth Broderick, Kurt Fuller (last seen in "Midnight in Paris"), Adam LeFevre (last seen in "The Invasion"), Mary Alice, Andre Gregory (last seen in "My Dinner With Andre"), Robert Stephens, with cameos from Rita Wilson (last seen in "Cheech and Chong's Next Movie"), Richard Libertini (last seen in "Best Friends"), Kirsten Dunst (last seen in "Anchorman 2"), Malachy McCourt, Don McManus, Richard Belzer (last seen in "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead"), Camryn Manheim (last seen in "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion"), George Plimpton (last seen in "Reds"), Geraldo Rivera (last seen in "Grumpier Old Men"), Terry Farrell.

RATING: 3 out of 10 tabloid headlines

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