Watching the stridently broad, rinky-dink movie that has been fashioned from Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, one is tempted to call the film an act of supreme cynicism. Yet what looks like cynicism may really have been fear. Wolfe’s book, with its pungent but instantly scannable characters, its exhilarating gutter-to-boardroom panorama of New York life in the ’80s, was the sort of whirlwind social satire at which Hollywood used to excel. By systematically eliminating everything that made the novel so rich and distinctive (I won’t bore you by reciting the movie’s already infamous litany of bizarre casting choices), producer-director Brian De Palma is really saying: I’m not up to this. The movie preserves Wolfe’s sprawling narrative, but at bottom it’s just an aggressively shallow Tom Hanks comedy. And the eerie thing is, it’s not even trying to be more than that. It’s as if De Palma was so petrified of not doing Wolfe justice that he threw out the novel before he started.
Wolfe’s story has so many built-in hooks that for about an hour the movie is watchable in a loud, obvious way. There’s an irresistible comic fascination to the saga of Sherman McCoy (Hanks), the ultra-WASPy bond trader and self- styled Master of the Universe who takes a spectacular fall off his pedestal. The plot is like something Preston Sturges might have dreamed up, a chain reaction of naughty disasters. First off, Sherman, through an unconscious slip, reveals to his shrill, socialite wife (Kim Cattrall) that he’s been having an affair. Then, when he and his Southern-sexpot mistress (Melanie Griffith) are driving into Manhattan from the airport, he takes a wrong turn off the highway, lands in a deserted section of the South Bronx, and — mostly through his own paranoia — provokes an altercation with a couple of black youths that ends with Sherman’s car accidentally hitting one of them during a panicky getaway.
When the kid lapses into a coma, the hit-and-run incident becomes a cause celebre through the combined machinations of two consummately sleazy operators: Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis), a boozing tabloid journalist desperate for a scoop, and the Reverend Bacon (John Hancock), a publicity-hungry inner- city demagogue. With their comically contrasting motives, these two succeed at whipping up a storm of ”outrage.” Yet Sherman would still be perfectly safe were it not for his own guilty conscience. When questioned by a couple of police investigators who don’t even suspect him, he inadvertently incriminates himself (the same way he did with his wife). Then his name makes the papers, and he becomes a kind of yuppie Christ figure, suffering for the sins of his greedy (white) peers.
The movie captures Wolfe’s central comic idea — the notion that Sherman’s plight is, at root, something of his own devising, a case of an outrageously privileged citizen living so far above everyone around him that he can never quite trust the extremity of his good fortune. What’s utterly missing is Wolfe’s central character: not poor old Sherman McCoy (even in the book, he was practically a generic human being), but New York City itself. Wolfe’s novel was dismissed by some as hollow, glibly cynical, and even racist, yet what made it hum was the author’s scalpel-edged satirical glee: He may not like people much, but he adores dissecting the human comedy. Though the book was closer to journalism than to literature, as a sociological observer Wolfe has an almost cinematic eye: He brought the teeming, clashing world of contemporary New York directly to your senses.
The movie, on the other hand, unfolds in a depressingly airless, slapstick New York populated by grim caricatures. To give just one example: In the book, Reverend Bacon was a hilariously smart and dignified hustler who knew that drumming up sensationalistic publicity was the only way he could draw attention to the plight of poor blacks (and, not so incidentally, to himself); in the movie, he has been turned into a phony-baloney, Saturday-morning- cartoon version of the Reverend Al Sharpton. Okay, so Sharpton is already a cartoon. The point is that the satire is now toothless.
Once Sherman’s plight becomes public, the movie descends from garishness to tedium. And just when you’re sure things can’t get any worse, it ends with a jaw-dropper of a courtroom speech in which the tough-talking Judge White (Morgan Freeman) makes a Capraesque plea for everyone to ”be decent.” That’s quite a sentiment coming from one of the most indecently bad movies of the year. D