What Are You Going To Do, Vote Republican?

Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Oliver Platt, Paul Sorvino, Jack Warren, Isaiah Washington. Directed by Warren Beatty. Aspect ratio: 1:85:1. Dolby Digital. 108 minutes. 1998. 20th Century Fox 4110398. Rated R. $34.98.

As this film opens, the 1996 primary elections are only days away and, as a supertitle informs us, "the populace is unaroused." Senator Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty) is having a nervous breakdown. Surrounded by relics of his liberal past, he weeps helplessly as he plays his slick television ads over and over. As his office staff begins their workday, he takes care of two pieces of business: He sells out his constituents in exchange for a $10 million life-insurance policy, and he hires a hit man to assassinate him.

His next order of business is a campaign rally at an African-American church, where, bored with his boilerplate speech, he decides to tell the truth. Asked why he's done nothing for the black community since his last campaign appearance, he says, "You haven't really contributed any money for my campaign, have you?" It's the first time in the film he's seemed alive. Increasingly exhilarated, he warms to his subject: "What are you going to do, vote Republican?"

It might be the end of the Senator's political career, but it's the beginning of a weekend in which he discovers a joy he obviously hasn't felt in years---possibly ever. He visits an after-hours club, smokes marijuana, falls in love with Halle Berry (who wouldn't?), and even begins to deliver his political speeches as a rapper. (Beatty is no threat to Coolio, but he's not bad for an elderly white guy.) He also surges ahead in the polls and discovers he doesn't want to die after all. Awkward thing, that contract he put out on himself.

Beatty co-wrote the screenplay, directed, and starred in this black comedy. And he did all three awfully well. (Actually, we have no way of knowing how much Beatty wrote, but there's no question that Bulworth is well-written.) Particularly refreshing is his seeming lack of actor's vanity---or should that be actor-director's vanity? He spends most of the movie a total mess. His mussed hair, bleary eyes, and sagging face are totally convincing: Here is a man at the end of his rope.

So it's surprising how fresh and heartfelt this movie seems. It would have been easy to have made Bulworth a piece of high-concept fluff reducible to a single-line plot synopsis; instead, it's a bravura piece of filmmaking that works as a comedy, a tragedy, a fable, and a romance.

Much of this is due to Halle Berry, who is as talented as she is beautiful. She spends much of the film bemused by Bulworth's dilemma, although she's ultimately responsible for much of the movie's credibility. Her intelligence and gravity make this fable believable.

The film is beautifully photographed. Colors are deep and rich---even the shadows have the weight of the world. The transfer to DVD preserves this, and the film's visual clarity is another anchor to the real world. The soundtrack is equally effective and convincing---from church to streets to after-hours nightclub, the sonic images enhance the visual ones.

Bulworth is an ambitious movie, and one that reminds us why films matter---they show us truths about ourselves in ways that let us laugh before the pain of recognition sinks in.

Thanks, we needed that.