R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 05/21/1998,
Warren Beatty’s brave, if ramshackle, political farce tackles the dirty business of racial inequality and corporate greed with the tenacity of a pit bull. As Senator Jay Bulworth (named loosely after Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party), Beatty, who also writes and directs, plays an extension of himself: a Kennedy liberal in the ’60s, now disillusioned by the political environment of the ’90s, where big money and favoritism suffocate activism and social advocacy.
Sick of all the hypocrisy and in the midst of a re-election campaign (it’s 1996, as Dole and Clinton duke it out), a sleep-and-food-deprived Bulworth makes a back-room deal for a $10 million life-insurance policy to benefit his daughter, then takes out a contract on himself. His imminent demise gives him the freedom to speak his mind: he tells the parishioners of a black South Central church to “put down their chicken wings and malt liquor”; he calls a group of Beverly Hills entertainment executives “big Jews” and brands their product “crap.” From there Bulworth angles his moral rebirth as a “White Negro,” pursuing a sultry flygirl (the always alluring Halle Berry), hanging out at hip-hop clubs (where they mistake him for George Hamilton), and even taking on a pair of racist cops, but the funniest incarnation comes when the middle-aged white guy starts rapping his anti-big-business sentiments at a chi-chi fundraiser.
As a piece of social commentary, Bulworth has an edgy, in-your-face texture somewhere between Network and Do the Right Thing. And though the plot contrivances — like the self-initiated hit — are old-hat, the dead-on performances, Vittorio Storaro’s kinetic cinematography, and Beatty’s nervy social agenda make this film a provocative tour de force in political incorrectness.
— Tom Meek