Since any positive retrospective of Brian De Palma’s career must inevitably be pitched as a defense of the director, it goes without saying that a key film in such a feature would be The Bonfire of the Vanities, his most unpopular work after Mission to Mars and one ravaged by critics with a vitriol that still seems remarkable. It’s remarkable because, in retrospect, Bonfire of the Vanities is one of De Palma’s tamer movies, no doubt eviscerated for not living up to the same image critics held in their heads when they read Tom Wolfe’s enormously popular novel three years earlier; hype always did kill the cat, and the movie’s nastiest pans came from journalists comparing it to the book—one called it a “fascinating calamity” and another, more frighteningly, commanded readers to “destroy this film.”
That latter comment exposed something else: critics’ completely unfounded, shamelessly unmasked hatred for De Palma the auteur. Watered-down as it may be, Bonfire of the Vanities channels much of the same rambunctious, anarchic spirit of his deeply personal Vietnam-era films, Greetings and Hi, Mom!, which makes complacent viewers tremble. Politically and artistically, Bonfire of the Vanities is a challenge—a visceral wake-up call to the mind and the senses. And as in any De Palma film worthy of its director’s name, in this one the audience plays the role of participant as much as it does spectator. To watch De Palma lampoon the self-indulgence of the ‘80s, as Wolfe did much more straightforwardly in his book, is to be forced to confront a long list of off-kilter images and incongruous tones—embodied here by the innately good-natured Tom Hanks’s performance as Sherman McCoy, a slimy, adulterous investment banker; Melanie Griffith’s gleefully absurd vixen mistress Maria Ruskin; and, most important of all, the sudden and jarring shift from farce to straight-faced moral declaration that is Morgan Freeman’s masterful courtroom speech (which draws its inspiration from, cleverly, a similarly positioned political decree within Jean-Luc Godard’s own social critique, Weekend).
“I don’t do satire,” De Palma reportedly said in one interview, and in a sense, he doesn’t, because satire suggests a sly ironic twist to otherwise stern material, whereas De Palma prefers to wear his parody with a big, dumb grin—or alternatively, with his fangs fully protracted. Tom Wolfe’s novel was satire; the movie is broad comedy, playing up its characters’ vices and follies to viciously cartoonish levels, rendering them more laughable than contemptible. This is why it was ultimately necessary that the movie’s corporate sleaze bucket be played by, of all people, Hanks, who up to that point had been tied to light comedies. And why, naturally, Melanie Griffith chose to make her character more daffy than sexy; likeable or detestable, De Palma’s protagonists fumble at everything they do. And it’s worth noting that both actors punctuate their billboard-size representations of greed, racism, and infidelity with some of the more gut-busting moments in movie history, such as when Griffith squeals at the ominous sight of two approaching black men in the Bronx, “Oh my God, natives!”
De Palma’s characterizations may not have the subtle tongue-in-cheek wit of Tom Wolfe, but his version of the story is both more comic and angrier for it. Behind Hanks’s and Griffith’s vaudeville act (and to a much lesser extent, Bruce Willis’s dull work as a alcoholic journalist who ties the narrative together), De Palma’s sinuous camerawork suggests a fiery examination of New York’s racial and economic head-butts—if critics were searching for the film’s muscle, this is where it was at. A glorious time-lapse shot opens the film, observing 24 hours in the city’s vibrant goings-on from atop the Chrysler’s building’s high perch. On one hand ecstatically unifying all New Yorkers under one sky, the image is also strangely foreboding, as a peering eagle statue looking down on the landscape insinuates the precarious social imbalances that exist among different neighborhoods. Never since has there been such a brilliantly singular distillation of a city’s cultural strife—certainly not in Crash‘s contrived fender-bender-as-peacemaking visual metaphor.
For all its polish, Bonfire of the Vanities neither sustains the feverish, revolutionary energy nor reaches the visceral peak of Hi, Mom! But as major Hollywood pictures go, it can become stunningly hot-tempered, a quality most journalists are too quick to ignore. As in Godard’s Weekend, a cutting sorrowfulness underlies slapstick humor that can quickly turn violent. When guests at a cocktail party condescend to his downfall, McCoy runs them out by blowing shotgun pellets into the ceiling. Here Hanks’s point of view is the camera’s, and so his character’s frustration is the audience’s, and that of every one of New York’s underdogs, rich and poor, who struggle to find genuine human feeling within the city’s partisan theatrics (signified here by a crooked Mayor, a savage media, and a pretentious intelligentsia, one of whom hysterically fawns over a gay poet by saying, “He’s on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. He has AIDS.”). Late in the film, De Palma juxtaposes the central plot with a production of the opera Don Giovanni—a tragicomedy within a tragicomedy, tying one century’s societal baggage to another’s. Each generation’s ills are really universal, a cycle of inhumanity that continues endlessly…
But not hopelessly, as Morgan Freeman articulates in his genius climactic speech—absent from the novel—playing the only good-natured character, a judge who presides over McCoy’s case. With a gavel in his hand to symbolize De Palma’s own measured plea for common sense, and approaching the camera directly as if to lecture the audience, Freeman turns various groups’ self-righteousness back on them, exposing each one’s duplicity and crying out for “decency.” “It’s what your mother taught you,” he explains, in a down-home vernacular that reverses, radically, the movie’s giddy parody into earnest speechifying. It’s still self-aware, of course (De Palma tests his audience’s limits in more than one way), but the sentiment is meant sincerely. De Palma doesn’t do straight satire, and as such his coda puts everything prior into a clarifying moral focus while simultaneously challenging the way we watch movies: In an unjust world, law is our “feeble attempt” to make things right. Bonfire of the Vanities is De Palma’s. Don’t like it? “The court directs you to shut up!”