It’s amazing anyone could screw up The Bonfire of the Vanities–and I’m only making that statement based on the movie and the material in it (never having read the book)–but if anyone was going to do it, adapter Michael Cristofer is the one to do it. When the movie started–it has a beautiful opening title sequence, followed by a wonderful De Palma steady-cam shot (the following seventeen million steady-cam shots are not, unfortunately, wonderful)–I thought David Mamet wrote the screenplay and the worst I was really in for was a bad Melanie Griffith performance.
Was I wrong.
Blaming Cristofer for all the film’s problems–even the majority of them–is a mistake. The producer–oh, it’s De Palma, how convenient–or the executive producer who didn’t realize making Bruce Willis’s reporter the main character would create a fantastic black comedy are the ones who made the biggest mistake. Whoever saw Tom Hanks’s performance the first day of shooting and didn’t realize he had to go (Hanks essentially plays the same character he did in Volunteers, only without the humor… it’s painful), that person made the second biggest mistake. The film’s potential as a black comedy, the media circus version of Wag the Dog (there’s a second Mamet reference), set in New York City, with Willis’s detached, smug performance (perfect for the role), and a Dave Grusin score. It’s a shame De Palma got a hold of this picture. It’s from Warner, so I’m going to guess Cristofer was set for the project regardless of director (Cristofer just coming off Witches of Eastwick), which is a still serious defect but a good director for the project would have known to eighty-six him.
De Palma tries real hard to make Vanities visually interesting; he’s got Vilmos Zsigmond wasting time with those endless steady-cam shots I mentioned earlier and I guess they’re supposed to substitute for creativity. De Palma simply cannot direct much of the script, the human scenes between people, the comedic scenes. He just can’t do it. When he does, it looks like a UHF commercial for carpet-cleaning. The movie’s also atrociously edited.
Like I said, Willis is good and if he’d run the whole show, the movie would have been good. Hanks is bad, though he gets a little better towards the end. Griffith isn’t good, isn’t bad. She’s occasionally funny (but, of course, De Palma doesn’t know what to do with it). Kim Cattrall is awful (again, De Palma’s fault for not understanding comedy). Kevin Dunn is really good… Morgan Freeman is wasting time. Saul Rubinek starts good, ends bad (again, has more to do with direction and lack of script–I was stunned to read Rubinek’s character was one of the novel’s central figures).
I think there’s some other stuff I really liked in the movie, but I can’t remember it right now. The Bonfire of the Vanities has got to be De Palma’s biggest failure, artistically speaking, since he didn’t approach it with anything but contrived, bestseller-to-blockbuster mentality… it’s unfortunate.
Produced and directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by Michael Cristofer, based on the novel by Tom Wolfe; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by David Ray and Bill Pankow; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Richard Sylbert; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Tom Hanks (Sherman McCoy), Bruce Willis (Peter Fallow), Melanie Griffith (Maria Ruskin), Kim Cattrall (Judy McCoy), Saul Rubinek (Jed Kramer), Morgan Freeman (Judge Leonard White), John Hancock (Reverend Bacon), Kevin Dunn (Tom Killian), Clifton James (Albert Fox), Louis Giambalvo (Ray Andruitti), Barton Heyman (Detective Martin), Norman Parker (Detective Goldberg) and Donald Moffat (Mr. McCoy).