When we first see Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty), he’s grinning at us from a TV screen, promising us that we can move forward if only we shake off the deadwood (welfare chronics, etc.) holding us back. When we first meet him, though, he’s sitting in his office, watching himself on TV and feeling empty and suicidal. Bulworth, a Democratic senator once filled with idealism, has become just another political puppet — a hollow man serving the interests of big money. The next morning, he takes out a huge life-insurance policy and arranges to have himself assassinated. His impending death frees him, allows him to tell the truth for the first time, and the people of California can’t get enough of him.
Bulworth, which Warren Beatty directed and co-wrote (with Jeremy Pikser and an uncredited Aaron Sorkin), is a liberal call to action — a satire driven by equal parts disgust and hope. Is it a classic? No; the climax hasn’t been thought out, and the movie, while enjoyable and heartfelt, is a bit amorphous where it needs to be as sharp as an ice-pick. Bulworth ambles up to the line dividing smart entertainment and great satire, and stops about ten feet on this side. Still, it’s always refreshing to have a movie — any movie — that talks about money and power (and understands that the real subject is the poor and powerless).
At a South Central church, Bulworth throws away his standard speech and shocks the congregation with his candor; in the space of about thirty seconds, the African-American audience shifts from wanting to throw things at him to wanting to lionize him. His point, which doesn’t fully come through in the ads for the movie (“Put down that malt liquor and chicken wings,” etc.), is that in politics, money talks — which is not a problem for people who have money, but is a sizable problem for people of any color who don’t. It’s at this church that Bulworth meets Nina (Halle Berry), a young woman impressed by his bravado; she gives him a sort of informal education on the lives of disenfranchised black people, and he embraces the surface trappings of black urban culture — he even starts rapping his speeches.
This aspect of Bulworth has drawn fire from both workaday film critics and African-American editorialists. Is the movie hauling out that old tired “White Negro” stuff? Not really. Take away the racial aspect and you have a despairing, exhausted politician rejuvenated by what he considers a more authentic way of living and speaking. The movie is only superficially about a white man acting black; it’s really about a powerful man rediscovering his idealism among the powerless. If you take the film too literally, as some did (what are we to make of the fact that Bulworth’s “blackness” appears to be a case of temporary insanity or, at the very least, sleep-deprived dementia?), you’ll miss the point and the fun.
Beatty keeps things light and fast, with a performance to match — you’d probably have to go back to Shampoo to find him this loose and raring-to-go. The undeniable silliness of a sixty-year-old white man adopting hip-hop mannerisms liberates Beatty as much as it does Bulworth. If only the movie were as liberated. Towards the end, the plot takes a turn into martyrdom, and the tone gets bleaker, more “important.” The last shot is shameless editorializing out of a bad Oliver Stone or Spike Lee film. Beatty and his writers should have cooked up an ending that doesn’t recall Network quite so explicitly (see, you stick up your head to tell the truth and they chop it off!). Still, most of Bulworth is a knowing adult comedy raising its voice above the din of summer-movie thunder, and we hear it loud and clear.