Warren Beatty's world extends from the hotel in Beverly Hills where he lived for thirty years all the way to the House in Beverly Hills where he now resides. The man who won an Oscar for directing Reds, the endless 1981 movie glorifying the Russian Revolution that would murder more than sixty million people in seventy years, has now brought forth a labor of love called Bulworth.
In Bulworth, which he co-wrote and directed, Beatty plays a U.S. senator who suddenly becomes a Marxist while running for reelection -- and receives 71 percent of the vote before being assassinated by an insurance company. It would be tempting to describe Bulworth as the single most left-wing portrait of the United States ever attempted on film, but Bulworth is not actually set in the United States. It is set in Beattyworld, a fantasy land in which the suffering masses are just waiting for a politician who will wander around yelling "Socialism!" and "Ebonics? Great!"
Bulworth is a negligible piece of work with a few laughs, a fifteen- minute skit padded to feature length. Only Beatty's performance makes the movie watchable. A highly underrated actor, Beatty has the rare ability to convince an audience that what his character does and says is spontaneous and fresh. There is something ineffably amusing about watching this aging Lothario play a Clinton-like senator from California who begins by blathering about "the doorstep of a new millennium" and ends as a hip-hop homie in baggy shorts delivering his ideological message entirely in rap.
Why rap? Well, in Bulworth, Beatty has spent $ 34 million bringing the domestic platform of the Nation magazine to the American moviegoer, and he knows his audience would fall asleep if subjected to a succession of policy proposals on insurance reform, Medicare, and the revitalization of urban manufacturing. Even Michael Dukakis doesn't go to the movies to suffer in that way.
So Beatty came up with the idea of issuing his Marxist apologetics in rhyme: Whether you call it single-payer or the Canadian way / Socialized medicine gonna save the day. I'll spare you his doggerel about campaign-finance reform and free television time for political candidates, but the level of Beatty's critique of current conditions can be judged from: The real obscenity black folks live with every day / Is tryin' to believe a f---in' word Democrats and Republicans say.
You might think that only Hollywood people would buy into this nonsense -- the kind of people who sing the virtues of wholesale redistribution of income while negotiating contracts in which the candy dishes in their trailer must contain only blue and red M&Ms. But it turns out that the nation's movie critics, whose wardrobes cost less than Beatty's socks, are also residents of Beattyworld.
What do the critics have to say about a movie in which the title character delivers a eulogy to the humanitarianism of Huey Newton, among whose humanitarian acts was the murder of Oakland police officer John Frey in 1967? It is not enough to read their celebratory words; you must also consider the subtexts:
"A subversive, hilarious and important new Molotov cocktail!" raves Jonathan Alter in Newsweek. (Subtext: Warren, please invite me over to dinner!)
"Thrillingly dangerous. . . . Beatty's rebellion is joyously eccentric and hedonistic!" shrieks David Denby in New York. (Subtext: When I was a Vietnam-era draft-dodger, I wrote for an alternative paper in Boston!)
"Furiously original!" hollers Leah Rozen in People. (Subtext: I'm trying to bring culture to the illiterate masses who like only movies about comets!)
This supposedly subversive, dangerous, original movie has these plot points:
* A guy takes out an insurance poicy and then hires a hit man to kill him; the hit man turns out to be a woman, and the two fall in love. "Warren Beatty is playing with fire here" -- Peter Travers, Rolling Stone.
* A senator is called upon by an insurance-company lobbyist who is fat, speaks with a southern accent, and says racist things about black people. "It may be the most keenly astute and honest film about politics ever" -- Sam Rubin, KTLA.
* An uptight, rich white man finds himself spending time with black people, who are, without exception, wiser and more sexually confident than any Causasians he has ever known. "A truth-teller's movie" -- Peter A. Kaplan, New York Observer.
* Four black kids under the age of ten encounter an L.A. cop who calls them "coons" before rubbing an ice-cream cone in the face of a six-year-old. "It has a startling optimism about race in America" -- Kaplan again.
* So stirred is a drug dealer by Bulworth's words that he reforms and decides he is going to clean up the neighborhood, just like the sainted Huey. "Beatty would never have thrown a firecracker like Bulworth if he didn't want to spark dialogue on race and class" -- Lynn Hirschberg, New York Times Magazine.
Bulworth considers itself a political satire. Perhaps in Beattyworld it is. But here on planet Earth, it's just agitprop for a politics whose few remaining adherents know nothing of America except Beverly Hills -- or the movies made by those from Beverly Hills.