tek's rating: ½

The Bonfire of the Vanities (R)
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Caution: spoilers.

Okay. This came out in 1990, but I didn't get around to seeing it until 2010. Hard to believe it took twenty years for me to watch it. Whatever, it was based on a book I've never read, though I gather the tone of the movie is rather different than that of the book. I also remember the movie being critically panned, and a financial flop, but that never much stopped me from having some vague interest in eventually seeing it. And now, finally, I have. And I actually liked it, though I probably wouldn't if I was a fan of the book. I dunno.

Anyway, it's got a large and great cast, though again, there have been complaints of miscasting, based on the characters in the book. But all I can do is take the movie on its own merits, and as such, I liked the cast. I also must say the movie is mostly comedy, but I felt there was enough of a dramatic aspect to call it "dramedy." Um... it starts with this guy Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis), who is being honored for this book he wrote, "The Real McCoy and the Forgotten Lamb." He's clearly a drunk, and enjoys doing whatever he feels like, though he's pretty much being shepherded around... Anyway, he narrates the movie, which is basically about another man, Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks), a wealthy Wall Street broker, or whatever. Sherman is married to a socialite named Judy (Kim Cattrall), and has a young daughter named Campbell (Kirsten Dunst), but they're of minimal importance to the story.

Occasionally, throughout the film, we see that Sherman doesn't have a great relatsionship with his father (Donald Moffat), who had tried and failed to instill in him a certain sense of morality. I gather that in the book, Sherman was less moral, less likable than he is in the movie (honestly, can Tom Hanks even play someone unlikable?), but even in the film, we can tell he's not a great guy. He has a sense of entitlement, he thinks of himself as above everyone, a "master of the universe," just because he has a lot of money. And that entitlement includes having an affair with a woman named Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith), who is married to a rich, older guy (Alan King). One night, Sherman and Maria are out driving, and take a wrong turn, ending up in the Bronx. They have an encounter with a couple of young black men, who seem... honestly, at first it's hard to say if they intended any harm, but of course the rich white people are nervous, to say the least, and end up trying to get away in a hurry. In the process, they accidentally hit one of the guys, Henry Lamb, with their car, and later he ends up in a coma. Sherman wants to report the incident, but Maria convinces him not to, because she was the one driving, at the time.

Well, circumstances rather conspire against Sherman. There's this guy named Reverend Bacon (John Hancock, as an Al Sharpton parody, apparently), who is stirring up his community over the incident, on behalf of Lamb's grieving mother (though eventually we'll see they have ulterior motives in causing the whole protest). There's also a has-been, drunk reporter named Peter Fallow (the narrator), who ends up writing a newspaper story about the incident, which garners a lot of public attention, and revives his career. Meanwhile, there's a district attorney, Abe Weiss (F. Murray Abraham), who is seeking reelection, so he wants to find out who's responsible for what happened to Lamb, and go after him full-force, to improve his public image and help his campaign, maybe even become mayor. Assistant DA Jed Kramer (Saul Rubinek) does most of the work in finding and prosecuting Sherman McCoy.

Well, there are just lots and lots of characters, I can't even mention them all. And it could be hard for me to keep straight how everyone was connected. Peter Fallow apparently knew a woman named Caroline (Beth Broderick), though I was never clear exactly what her position or anything was. However, coincidentally, she was the one subletting an apartment to Maria Ruskin, where Maria and Sherman rendezvoused. This would eventually lead to an important plot point, but I won't spoil that. Also throughout the film, we see a judge named Leonard White (Morgan Freeman), who seems pretty disgusted with pretty much everyone (and rightly so).

Anyway... this one thing happened to Sherman that wasn't really his fault, and it clearly troubled him. It seems a bit out of character, but as I said, he wanted to report the incident immediately. Though I suppose this was mostly out of concern for himself; if his involvement in the incident was discovered later, he could be in more trouble than if he'd come forward immediately. So maybe it wasn't that out of character. However, he didn't report it, and his involvement was discovered. And Maria was no help at all. So, Sherman's life spiraled downward very quickly, he just lost one part of his life after another, and ended up having a bit of a breakdown. In the end, things turn out alright for him, though there was some subterfuge used in getting around a legal technicality. Which, ironically, Sherman's father actually encouraged....

Well. The theme of the whole story is basically a Biblical line Peter Fallow quoted early on, "For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his soul?" And there is the fact that Peter and Sherman's situations rather mirrored one another. They started out at opposite ends of the spectrum, Sherman having everything, and Peter nothing, but by the end of the movie, their situations were reversed, financially as well as spiritually. Though it's kind of murky... clearly, Sherman found his soul in the end, even if he still had to resort to lying (in order to present the truth). But Peter... he started out with an interest in honesty, and may have sort of lost his soul in the end, but... it's not like he ever really did anything that was so terrible. In fact, he did his share of... stretching the truth, early on, but it was also for the right reasons. Or a mix of good and bad. I dunno. But the way he acted once he got rich and famous... probably isn't much different from how he acted all along. Whatever. Like I said, it's murky.

But even if that whole theme of the two characters mirroring each other and ultimately exchanging positions didn't exactly work out quite as well as might have been intended, the theme wasn't a complete failure, either. Meanwhile, I just want to say that I thought the movie was pretty funny most of the time, but also made you think about serious issues, most notably race-baiting, and how people tend to use unfortunate situations for their own gain, often at the expense of innocent people, and at the expense of things like truth and justice. And near the end, Judge White gives an impassioned speech about just that, which I quite liked. But... mostly the movie is a comedy.

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