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Bonfire of the Vanities Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 June 2004

Bonfire Of The Vanities

Warner Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman, Kim Cattrall
release year: 1990
film rating: Two-and-a-Half Stars
sound/picture: Three Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

The film version of Tom Wolfe’s novel ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ got critically scorched when it was released theatrically in 1990. It’s actually not that bad; it’s just not especially good, either. In the hands of director Brian De Palma, it looks great, with lights shimmering magically against dark backgrounds and opulent interiors to fulfill the wildest dreams of avarice. However, skill with social satire is even more crucial than visual mastery for ‘Bonfire,’ and neither De Palma nor screenwriter Michael Cristofer here show much flair for the genre.

Our narrator, alcoholic journalist Peter Farrow (Bruce Willis), is being honored for his work. Peter guides us back to the incidents that brought him this fame and fortune. He was the first reporter involved in covering the story of Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks), a Wall Street "master of the universe" brought low by an accident. The married, white Sherman and his also-married mistress, white Southerner Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith), take a wrong turn off the freeway and wind up in the South Bronx. Sherman gets out of the car to clear debris out of the road and is approached by two black youths. Sherman gets back into the car but Maria panics, hits the accelerator and runs over one of the young men. Maria persuades Sherman not to go to the police. Bad news: the license plate on the car is traceable. Worse news: it’s an election year and the white district attorney (F. Murray Abraham) feels pressure to demonstrate the justice is color-blind in the South Bronx. The press close in, Sherman’s friends lock him out and Maria is very disinclined to help.

The story being spun in ‘Bonfire’ is certainly intriguing, with all sorts of characters doing the right moves for the wrong reasons and vice-versa. The Chapter 1 opening is promising, with De Palma using a gorgeous time-lapse photography process to show us 24 hours revolving over the New York skyline. However, the pacing and tone are erratic. Chapter 2 starts out being broadly cartoonish in both dialogue and musical score, only to weave in and out of sober drama. Hanks is fine in putting across Sherman’s troubled bewilderment, but (despite his infidelity and unwise choice in lovers) he comes across as such a nice guy from the start that he doesn’t seem in need of a comeuppance, so there’s no irony in his fall. Willis conveys Farrow’s self-conscious sleaziness well enough. As a judge, Morgan Freeman has so much authority and charisma that he very nearly pulls off a finger-wagging, climactic courtroom lecture on right and wrong (no easy task). Other performances clash in style and tone, with some actors seeming to be in different movies while they’re in the same scenes. The decision to try to incorporate some of Wolfe’s prose via Farrow’s narration is understandable, but the results are superfluous rather than insightful. Even when Farrow is allowed an entertainingly insightful observation, it comes off as hammering home what we can already see for ourselves.

Aurally, the DVD is subtle but impressive. The impact of the collision in Chapter 7 is nicely understated, so that we can believe Sherman’s doubt that anything really happened. Chapter 21 has a bravura operatic blast and crowd sounds throughout are good. Surprisingly for a film intended as modern social commentary, ‘Bonfire’ has no music of its day on the soundtrack, relying instead on a few old standards and on Dave Grusin’s competent but conventional score.

‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ is a complicated and prismatic narrative that never quite takes off and grabs us as a feature. It doesn’t precisely make us squirm with aesthetic discomfort, but it seldom makes us laugh and never draws us in.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Surround Stereo; French Dolby Surround Stereo
aspect ratio(s):
Original Widescreen Aspect Ratio (exact ratio not given)
1:3:3 (modified from original format)
special features: French Language Track; French Subtitles; English Closed-Captioning; Chapter Search
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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