Cinema: God bless you, Mr Bulworth

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Bulworth (18)

Warren Beatty's new movie was a commercial flop in the United States, and American audiences as usual got it right. By staying away in droves, they demonstrated that they hadn't lost their flair for winnowing out the wheat from the chaff - or for making an unerring beeline for the chaff. For such a movie, box-office success would have been a virtual guarantee of the pusillanimous bet-hedging endemic to most Hollywood satires, and its failure ought to be regarded not as an ignominy but as a red badge of courage (even if only the red of ink, not blood).

Satire is of course a notoriously awkward genre to pull off in the cinema. To be effective - rather, to feel effective, for it's doubtful whether a satire in any medium has ever had an enduring effect on its object of raillery - it demands a single-mindedness of purpose and vision incompatible with the profusion of extraneous detail that will swim into the ken of even the most tightly leashed camera. Satire requires a schema, and schemas are anathema to the cinema's intrinsic prodigality. The most brilliant of all the cinema's satires, Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, didn't have to face that problem because it was about the end of the world, a schema if ever there was. As for Altman, Hollywood's pet satirist-in-residence, his best movies tend to come across not as indictments at all but as jazzy celebrations of the energy and vulgarity they're supposedly debunking.

This is also true of Bulworth. Yes, it makes all the right liberal noises about the increasing alienation from the American political process of vast swathes of its electorate. Yet the satirical thrust of the plot - a Democratic senator, J Billington Bulworth (Beatty), suicidally weary of the meaningless bromides he has to parrot on the primary trail, suddenly rediscovers his long-dormant principles by telling his stupefied supporters the unvarnished truth - belongs more to the realm of wishful thinking than that of political analysis. The scenes in which he reminds a black audience that they're just too poor and insignificant to merit the attention of an ambitious politician, or offends a party of powerful movie industry players by asking them how so many clever people can make such putrid trash (hear hear!), or answers his TV interviewers in rhyming rap, are extremely funny, and I confess to being as much a sucker as anyone for this kind of sweet, enjoyable fantasy. Scathing satire, though, it isn't.

But, I can hear the reader say, this seemed to start out as a positive review, yet all we've had so far is carping. To that my answer would be: how would you define a good movie? It's one, surely and simply, that for two hours or so shows you things you want to look at. By that criterion Bulworth easily passes the test.

Beatty is no auteur, but he does display here, as both writer and director, a visual eloquence, an affection for his characters (not one of which is less than superlatively played) and, above all, a generosity of spirit that are difficult to reconcile with the man who made such redundant nullities as Heaven Can Wait and Dick Tracy. Satire may be the movie's raison d'etre, and Beatty is to be congratulated on even attempting to prick America's conscience in these conservative times (did he really imagine it could ever be a hit?), but the real reason for seeing it is the panache with which it captures the irresistible flash and filigree of American politics, the behavioural charm of the performers, the elegant fluidity of the camerawork (by Vittorio Storaro), the quizzical arch of an eyebrow, the gap-toothed smile of a child. The cinema, in other words.

There may be, in the sight of Beatty trying, as they say, to walk the walk and talk the talk (and that phrase sits as oddly on my writing style as it does on his acting style), a faintly sophomoric satirical point being made (it really amounts to little more than a revue sketch), but the pleasure that the spectator takes in the conceit derives less from any "message" it might be giving off than from the droll incongruity of the image itself. I also enjoyed his sweatily euphoric dance with Halle Berry and his encounter with a gang of smartass black kids, and in particular with the very youngest, God's little wiseacre, all of seven years old and already the complete dude.

Best of all is Beatty himself, still charisma incarnate. Bulworth is definitely a vanity project - its actor-writer-producer-director figures in nearly every scene - but it's an ultimately puzzling one. For every sequence that catches him, so to speak, preeningly blowing on his fingernails and polishing them on his lapels, there's another that gleefully subverts the carefully groomed public persona. On the one hand, his boyish sexiness is more or less intact; on the other, he looks for most of the movie's running time like a bleary, unshaven slob. On the one hand, framed snapshots of him in his golden prime are complacently displayed on screen; on the other, he's not afraid to make a craven spectacle of himself, ducking from assassins real and imagined and, at one point, stumbling fully clothed into an ornamental pool. On the one hand, he manages to land Berry, 40 years his junior and utterly ravishing besides; on the other, there's a startling moment when he asks her point blank how old she thinks he is and she replies, "Sixty." Which, considering that that is just how old he was when he made Bulworth, must be an absolute first for the American cinema. (I can no longer count the number of times when, having just watched an old movie on TV, I've consulted a reference book and discovered as much as a 20-year gap between some character's supposed age and that of the actor playing him.)

As an example of masochistic self-exposure by a director in one of his own movies, it may not rank with Welles's ogreishly gross sheriff in Touch of Evil or Fassbinder's urine-stinking prole in Fox and His Friends. But it must have taken courage on the part of so famously narcissistic an actor, and I salute Beatty for it.