Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Is "Bulworth" (1998) the Craziest Best Original Screenplay Nominee Ever?

Left to right: Halle Berry and Warren Beatty
For whatever reason, I took it upon myself to watch director Warren Beatty's Bulworth. Before I get too far, I will accept that I knew about the "rapping Beatty" shtick that has created an umbrella over this film. Yet, I still felt the curiosity to watch this and understand just what this movie was. The results were predictably a mixture of my general thoughts on Beatty in general: bafflement and genius. Side by side, these things rode out through the movie until the credits started playing. It was then that I decided to do some research, which resulted in some appalling information. So to you, I ask the very tough question: Is Bulworth the strangest Oscar-nominated screenplay in history?

A lot of my reasoning behind this film falls solely on Beatty's shoulders. While I haven't seen all of his films as a director, I must note that I love Reds. It is a beautiful epic that captures the essence of journalism during the Russian Revolution. The craft that went into the film remains astounding and may be one of my favorite Best Picture "snubs" of the 80's. There was so much class and poignancy that went into every frame. It is lovely and made me gain respect for him as an artist. I don't even hate the maligned Ishtar. In a sense, Beatty was on good terms with me because of how personally I loved Reds.

Then there's Bulworth, which came out 17 years later when he was in his 60's. To watch the film is to be immediately transported back to the late 90's culture of its time. There was Bill Clinton midway through his second term as President. Rap music was still considered dangerous, and the millennium was an imminent threat thanks to Y2K conspiracy nuts. It's a time of uncertainty that was the last cusp of time before social media and technology took its final hold over billions of people. In 1998, it seemed like a great time to drop a film that captured the crassest of ideas on the general public: an old white man rapping.

I will accept that I don't know the history of old white people rapping. However, I do know that in a pre-Eminem world, it was largely a joke with no substance. In a way, it decriminalized the genre and made you embarrassed to even like the heavies of the time. What we didn't really need was Beatty throwing his hat in the ring. The man was in the double digits with Oscar nominations by this point. He had proven himself time and again since his breakout with Bonnie & Clyde. He could just do like his peers and settle into the old man role that would help him keep his dignity. To some extent, I do think Bulworth is indicative of why he hasn't directed a film since - even if there's allegedly a new film in the not too distant future. Before you even get into the film, you have to reckon with this idea.

Of course, you also have to reckon with something even more baffling, which is the plot: A disaffected politician hires an assassin, which causes him to be more candid in speeches. This means what you think it means. He jokes about black and Jewish stereotypes. He dates Nina (Halle Berry), who is black. We don't need to know what he's smoking, because he does it right on screen. By the time that rap comes in, he's already integrated into a culture that he may mock, but I don't know that Beatty understands. Is he doing commentary on how out of touch old white men are? Is the film even smart about it? By the third act when Beatty dons a gangster look and throws around his faux-rap skills (full of profanity. Supposedly 111 variations on the f-word are in this film). It's supposed to help him appeal to the hip demographics while speaking about politics.

The only thing to be left from this is a baffling commentary on race relations. Beatty definitely feels like he thought he was making Network '98. The only thing is that his old white man rapping skills are cringe-inducing nowadays. His ghetto shtick holds up slightly better, but that's mostly because it's confusing to see the director of Reds doing half of the things he does here. Maybe there is insightful commentary on politics, but it's hard to overlook the fact that Beatty's character seems too desperate, as if in crisis, to really bring anything meaningful to the story. There's too much going on and I don't know that Beatty even comes close to scratching any surfaces. It doesn't feel insightful to politics or race, nor the general attitudes towards rap music. 

Of course, even the soundtrack is astounding. It was supposedly certified platinum (that's one million copies sold) despite the film barely making a dent in limited release. If you go in just blind enough, you will be pleasantly surprised to see composer Ennio Morricone's name thrown into the credits. If you stick around, you will be baffled beyond belief as Beatty pulls off the confusing combination of Morricone and N.W.A. during a chase scene. Mind you, I don't think anyone was really expecting Beatty to personally make a film that features artists like Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, and Ol Dirty Bastard on the soundtrack. Even if the music dates it, the attitudes on display are arguably worse. 

Mind you, Bulworth is from the man who directed Reds. There's dignity to Reds that is almost too pristine and perfect. What Bulworth feels like is an old man trying to appeal to an audience he could never reach. I don't know that Beatty even needed to. He didn't do much of a good job, even if his politics were subversive and occasionally insightful. The film is a head trip on par with trying to understand how Beatty came to make this. It's so surreal and the more appreciation you had for his previous work, the more it will either make you cringe or hallucinate. What is this film and why isn't it the worst thing ever? Why is it even a thing? 

But most of all, why was this nominated for an Oscar? Yes, it got into the Best Original Screenplay category, and I am not entirely sure. I don't know that 1998 was that desperate for a nominee. However, I do think that he was nominated solely on credit. I cannot think of why Roget Ebert gave the film 3.5/4 stars. I don't even know that its 90's culture has aged well. I wonder what it would have been like to have seen it during the time. Was white culture reassessing black culture somehow more respectable back then? I don't know. As I surf the Best Original Screenplay category, there is none that really shake my faith as much as Bulworth. There have been dull screenplays for sure, but none that have Warren Beatty dancing to Ol Dirty Bastard and obnoxiously yelling profanities on live TV. If you can find one, please let me know. As it stands, I still think that Bulworth was a fever dream (a very well casted fever dream, mind you) that didn't exist. I don't know why it needed to.

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