The year is 1996, and the terminally dull presidential race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole is in full swing. Democratic Senator Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty, Reds) is running for re-election, too, and it's expected that he'll win by a fairly wide margin. All he needs to do is stay on message for another week or so: keep trotting the same old boring talking points (“We're on the doorstep of a new millennium!”) until his next uneventful four-year term is secured. Then, something happens: Bulworth develops an urge to start being honest.
Speaking at an African-American church, Bulworth freely admits that he's ignored important bills that he promised he would fight to pass, that wealthy businessmen basically control Washington and that he and his fellow Democrats don't actually care about helping their black constituents (“What are you gonna do about it? Vote for a Republican?”). Despite the pleas of his closest adviser (Oliver Platt, Bored to Death), Bulworth continues his campaign of honesty at every stop. He loses the support of numerous powerful organizations, but gains the attention of the general public.
Bulworth's satire isn't always elegant, but it's rooted in a fairly potent truth: straight-shooting honesty is dangerous enough to wreck the whole corrupt system we've built. The film was made in 1998, and it feels like it, but the flick's dated nature adds to the power of its message. We live in a very different world now, but precious little has changed in Washington. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are still spewing carefully-worded double talk. As I write this, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – a living cartoon of the first order – is surging ahead in the polls simply because he's willing to avoid sounding like a walking press release. Imagine what might happen if somebody with a brain and a heart started doing the same thing.
Intriguingly, Bulworth's honesty doesn't reveal a liberal saint, but a deeply flawed, casually racist, self-serving jerk who's finally recognizing that he's the source of the problem. In an effort to truly connect with the people he's ignored, Bulworth takes a nosedive into African-American culture, a process that culminates with the senator developing a hip-hop obsession. To say his rhymes are clunky is an understatement – they're often closer to imitation Dr. Seuss than imitation Dr. Dre – but they're undeniably sincere, and they're built on statements of hard truth about inequality in America. Bulworth may look and sound like a clown, but he's also real. People respond to him.
The film's jokes don't always land (particularly a lame running gag about a potty-mouthed old woman – did the Farrelly Brothers guest-direct a few scenes?), but the movie isn't shy about pushing buttons or pissing off its audience. It flat-out dismisses conservatives from the start, and then proceeds to depict most liberals as spineless, self-serving cowards without the guts to live up to their noble ideals. It features scenes in which Beatty's character casually flings around the n-word, and the movie doesn't do much to challenge some of the character's most offensive assertions (he makes some remarks about "rich Jews" that sound distinctly Mel Gibson-esque, and throws out an incredibly ill-advised fried chicken joke). Like Bulworth, the film is willing to risk being offensive for the sake of grabbing the viewer's attention, but it doesn't pretend to be an “equal opportunity offender” - the movie actually has something to say. Public Enemy's “Kill 'Em Live” appears over and over again on the soundtrack, perfectly summarizing the film's angry subtext.
Beatty co-wrote and directed the film in addition to starring in it, and the movie's biggest liability is that Beatty's talent occasionally conflicts with his ego. His core ideas are sound and his performance is terrific, but he seems to intent on placing Bulworth at the center of every scene. There are a lot of talented actors in the cast (Wendell Pierce, Don Cheadle, Christine Baranski, Barry Shabaka Henley, Nora Dunn, etc.), but most of them seemingly weren't given much direction other than, “Look at Bulworth with surprise and fascination.” Beatty's self-centeredness particularly afflicts the May/December love story – Halle Berry (X-Men) brings an electrifying energy to a dance scene midway through, but otherwise is given entirely too little to do. The romance subplot feels like the film's lone concession to formula. It's a tribute to the talent of composer Ennio Morricone (who provides a gorgeous theme) that the film's big love scene actually kinda-sorta works.
Bulworth has moments of real power, though – the nervy ending in particular - and it's left an impression on many of the people who have actually seen it (the movie fizzled at the box office). A couple of years ago, the New York Times published a piece revealing that President Obama has occasionally spoken privately of a desire to start “going Bulworth.” David Axelrod offered a response that Platt's character would have been proud of: “Probably every President says that from time to time. It's probably cathartic just to say it. But the reality is that while you want to be truthful, you want to be straightforward, you also want to be practical about whatever you're saying.” Bulworth offers a memorable demonstration of what would happen if that practicality were thrown out the window: the thrilling rewards, and the inevitable consequences.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 1998