When confronted with a disaster on the order of Brian DePalma's ill-fated adaptation of Bonfire Of The Vanities it's tempting to indulge in spirited rounds of "What if?", especially when there's a terrific book (Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy: The Anatomy Of A Hollywood Fiasco) that helpfully lays out a series of tantalizing scenarios on how the film could have been saved, or, at least, improved. What if DePalma had trusted his instincts and cast an impossibly lithe, gorgeous 19-year-old Uma Thurman in the female lead instead of the fading Melanie Griffith? What if DePalma had cast a real-life judge and novice actor Salamon insists possesses a "Spencer Tracy quality" or Walter Matthau (who reportedly asked for too much money) in the crucial role of the judge who presides over Tom Hanks' trial instead of noble Morgan Freeman?
For that matter what if DePalma had stuck with Alan Arkin, the actor originally cast in the judge's role before a swarm of controversy made it politically expedient to cast a black actor as the film's unshakable moral center to offset the film's unfortunate preponderance of regressive black stereotypes? What if DePalma snagged John Cleese or Jack Nicholson for the flashy role of a boozy reporter who stokes the flames of class warfare with his incendiary articles about Tom Hanks' trial for running over a black teenager instead of a smirking, sleepwalking Bruce Willis or cast a WASP like William Hurt, who seems to have been born in a Brooks Brothers suit, in the male lead instead of Hanks, the very embodiment of aw-shucks American decency?
In my viewer's cut of The Bonfire Of The Vanities Thurman, Matthau, Nicholson and Hurt would all be in and Griffith, Freeman, Willis, and Hanks would all be out. But such changes, however major, probably wouldn't save the film. The Bonfire Of The Vanities gets a lot of things right but they're largely negated by the colossal things it gets wrong.
Bonfire Of The Vanities peaks early during nicely observed vignettes that draw directly on Tom Wolfe's journalistic background. At best, the film illustrates, with wry, knowing humor, how big cities like New York really work and how the gears of major metropolises are greased by a strange combination of pragmatism, identity politics, and cynical calculation. I especially enjoyed juicy supporting performances from Richard Libertini as a jaded teacher who wearily explains to Willis how standards at his school are so low that any student who doesn't piss on his teachers is considered an honors student, Saul Rubinek as an up-and-comer at the D.A's office who proves a quick study in the black arts of manipulating public opinion and Andre Gregory as rail-thin prophet of doom whose HIV-positive status is constantly referenced as a queasy badge of authenticity.
Bonfire of the Vanities is flavorful and zesty around the edges but inert and lifeless at the center. Much of the blame falls on the miscasting of Hanks, an actor whose innate likeability weakens the film's satirical bite. Hanks famously plays a "master of the universe" but he wears his character's wealth and privilege like an itchy, ill-fitting suit. So there doesn't seem to be much at stake when he loses his socio-economic footing and free-falls into public notoriety. What does Hanks really have to lose? His shrill, brittle trophy wife (Kim Cattrall)? His dim-witted, whiny mistress (Griffith)? A giant apartment that's like a mausoleum for his dead marriage?
You can't be Michael Douglas in Wall Street and Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington at the same time and Hanks is just too damn wholesome and ingratiating to convincingly inhabit the ugly emotions of his character. Christ, even when Hanks played a hired killer with a body count to rival a small island nation in Road To Perdition he seemed more saintly than sinister. If Hanks is horrifically miscast Willis is fatally typecast. Willis generally excels at playing this type of character-the wisecracking outsider irreverently taking it all in-but he's strictly on auto-pilot here, playing Wolfe's Christopher Hitchens-like wordsmith as a very minor variation on his Moonlighting gumshoe.
Thurman at least would have made her character's sexual rapaciousness exciting as well as off-putting. Griffith just makes it repellent. Of course she's not helped by a giant '80s hairstyle that unwisely combines the bouffant with the pompadour (bouffampador?) or by a running joke involving her character's endless Spoonerisms that quickly slows to a sluggish limp.
After a superior first hour Bonfire of the Vanities zeroes in on the characters played by Hanks, Griffith and Willis. From a commercial point of view this makes sense. They are, after all, the names above the title and big movie stars. They're also three of the film's least interesting characters. By the time a compatriot of Willis begins boozily Xeroxing her lady-business, Richard Belzer starts offering to suck Hanks' cock for the TV rights to his story, and Hanks concedes that he soiled himself in prison any pretensions to sophisticated satire have been abandoned in favor of cheap, crude scatology.
Bonfire Of The Vanities ends with a marathon sermon on the importance of decency from Freeman that feels a little hypocritical coming from a filmmaker who specializes in movies about nasty people doing nasty things to each other, sometimes with the aid of chainsaws. DePalma made a movie that's paradoxically both too nasty and too nice: he wants audiences to simultaneously laugh at Hanks and root for him and doesn't succeed on either count.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Fiasco