The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

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Brian De Palma direct Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffiths and Bruce Willis in this big budget adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s tome about Eighties New York tearing itself apart. 

I have just finished reading The Devil’s Candy, Julie Salamon’s unparalleled look at the making of this commercial flop. She had unprecedented access to the production of a blockbuster only to see all the compromises. It is an excellent book letting you in on the Hollywood movie production process from pitch to premiere and the psychology of the team who work their ambitious butts off to make a movie; whether it proves to be a masterpiece or a disaster. Is Bonfire of the Vanities as bad as its reputation suggests? No. Imperfect but quite watchable. The pluses are nearly all in the visually opulent choices made, thanks to the stunt direction of De Palma. He may not be able to imbue wit or intelligence to the endeavour but fuck me can the dude muck around with a steadicam, a split screen and a time lapse camera. The script cannot decide whether it is drama or a satire and succeeds as neither. Any adaptation really needed to ramp up its cartoonishness to Dr Strangelove levels of confidence to get away with its tasteless grotesque plot. It is miscast – Tom Hanks has the comic chops to make Sherman the sacrificial stockbroker fly but seems neutered, Willis is out of place and it is hard to see what real significance his weak turn has on the proceedings, but Griffiths gets “it” and has breathy, manipulative larks. To compare it to Strangelove again, you cannot help but imagine the fun Sellers and George C Scott would have with this material, keeping Griffiths still in there too. Anachronistic fantasy perhaps, but Bonfires is an experience as much about what it could have been as what it is. We would have to wait another decade for Mary Harron’s American Psycho to get the cinematic lampooning the yuppie era deserved. We are left with a film that is part visually dazzling, woefully straight faced and often clunkily racist. While we are playing “What if…?” Spike Lee as director would have shared all of De Palma’s bravo techniques with a more intriguing grip on lacerating the white chattering classes. Oh well…

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