The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Bulworth’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Bulworth.”

The info:

The Movie: “Bulworth” (1998)

Starring: Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt

Director: Warren Beatty

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A suicidally disillusioned liberal politician puts a contract out on himself and takes the opportunity to be bluntly honest with his voters by affecting the rhythms and speech of hip-hop music and culture.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 75 percent

Our take:

Brown: Before we roll into October and start dealing with scary movies and Halloween-themed films, I figured it was time to get another fall tradition out of the way: Election season.

Like many in America, I need November to get here just so I can stop having political ads interrupt my life (well, mostly my TV viewing). This election cycle brings that to a whole ‘nother level.

So, what better way to deal with election season than to mock it with “Bulworth.” It’s a film that I had never seen and one that I knew very little about, except for the still-catchy song from the soundtrack, “Ghetto Superstar.” I’m sure unhinged politicians were eye-opening in 1998. Now…. oh boy. I think in a way, this movie was pretty clairvoyant.

You had seen this one before, Froemming, so before we dive in, what did you remember about “Bulworth?”

Froemming: To be honest, I didn’t remember a whole lot of this film. I saw it in ‘98 when it came out, and really didn’t think much more about it. But maybe I should have, because there is a lot going on here that would explain not only the 2000 election, but our current one as well.

This, in a sense, was Warren Beatty’s cinematic middle finger to the Democratic Party and politics in general of the era. At the time, the Democrats were really starting to head more to the right, which alienated and upset many in its liberal wing that Beatty is/was a part of (sounds familiar this year as well). And as we saw in 2000, many in the liberal wing jumped ship and supported Ralph Nader (and/or other third party candidates), tipping that election more in George W. Bush’s favor.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum, we see in Bulworth a loud, brash candidate who says whatever the hell is on his mind (again, very familiar here). But before we go into a politician’s midlife crisis, Brown, set up the story here.

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Brown: We meet Jay Billington Bulworth, who is sitting in his office surrounded by booze, old food and terrible late-night TV (save for some Ric Flair wrestling that I wish they would have stayed on). So, he’s pretty much become Ozzy Osbourne post-Black Sabbath. And to your point, if Bulworth is a democrat, he’s the most conservative democrat ever, because we see this stream of Bulworth political ads that have talking points like restricting welfare and having less government. Plus, his name is Jay Billington Bulworth. Anyone who needs to use their middle name in an intro does not care about the middle class.

And right away, besides the gluttony, you know something is off about this guy because he’s drunk and sobbing, which is how I like to envision all my politicians.

Froemming: The only good politician is a weeping politician. Yes, Bulworth is sitting in his office watching his conservative ads while his wall is decorated with pictures of his more radical liberal youth. And he is pretty much losing it.

So we soon find out he has set up a plan: He will bilk the insurance companies out of a huge life insurance claim in exchange for him keeping a health care bill stuck in committee. He is also plotting to have himself assassinated, because he is a shell of the man he once was.

Brown: I’m glad you can understand the attention to detail there about Bulworth’s previous radicalness, because I did not. I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to politics. I got that he was depressed, but in my notes, I asked countless times why? That makes total sense. It drove me bonkers.

My lack of attention aside, Bulworth sets it up so his daughter will get his entire $10 million insurance policy instead of his cheating wife (that he stays with for appearances, being a career politician and all), then sets up his own death so the life insurance policy wouldn’t be voided by a suicide.

After a quick trip out of state, Bulworth returns to California, chugging airplane bottles of Jack Daniels (which probably cost him $20 a pop, I imagine), knowing he’s going to be killed soon. And I don’t know if he loses his nerve or if he just thinks to himself, “(REDACTED) it, I’m gonna die soon,” Bulworth goes to a speech at a black church drunk and with no filter. Ratcheting up the tension for his campaign: C-SPAN is there every step of the way. Don’t know why that worries them: No one watches C-SPAN.

Froemming: It is here that Bulworth admits that the system is set up against the poor and urban of that neighborhood because they don’t contribute campaign dollars. It is a very uncomfortable speech filled with awful truths of politics and ugly racial slurs that had me muttering “dear lord.” I know this is satire, and I have seen Trump say similar stuff like this during his campaign, but it still made me feel uncomfortable.

Brown: This is the scene where I got into this movie. Someone just thinking “I don’t care anymore” and spouting the truth is always captivating to watch and Beatty does it well. It gets cartoonish later, but here’s Bulworth’s nonchalance is a lot of fun to watch in the same way Larry David is fun to watch in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

I wrote in my notes: Man, I wish this would really happen. Then, I remembered we have Donald Trump doing the same thing, but racist to all sorts of people, not just black people. Then I became profoundly sad.

Then, Halle Berry showed up and my spirits were lifted.

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Froemming: I believe this was the first film I ever saw Berry in, and she was one of the few characters I remembered from my initial watch nearly 20 years ago. I will say she gives a pretty good performance in this film.

Now, Bulworth has struck a chord with discontented voters sick of hearing the “politics as usual” campaign hyperbole. His sudden honesty (basically since he is going to be shot dead at any moment, he has nothing to lose now) appeals to the people. Again, much like what we are seeing today. And it is driving his campaign staff up the wall, since all of this is being caught by C-SPAN, which as you mentioned, nobody even watches.

Brown: C-SPAN’s most salacious stuff would have come at the club, which is where Bulworth goes next. Unfortunately, cameras weren’t allowed there.

What is allowed, though, is Bulworth mingling, getting drunk and smoking weed with a crowd that no clean-cut politician would be caught dead hanging out with. But instead of making a scene like this — and several others like it later on — some fish-out-of-water white-guy-in-a-black-world situation for cheap laughs, there’s actually dialogue between Bulworth and the disenfranchised young black people who have no problem explaining to him what’s wrong. And, although he’s drunk, he listens.

Yes, there’s stupid moments like Bulworth scratching records and his rapping (don’t worry, we’ll touch on that plenty), but this was another time where I was surprised at how deep this movie could get.

Froemming: Unfortunately, for me anyway, these moments are pretty much tainted by the end of the film. Of all the moments I thought “wow, that’s great,” this film still suffers from the White Knight problem: The only one who will shine a light and help these poor minorities is a white politician. That really bothered me. But, we will probably discuss that more toward the end.

Also, (REDACTED) you for making me watch a film where Warren Beatty constantly raps.

Brown: OK, we should get Beatty’s rapping out of the way now. It’s terrible. I’d contend that he’s still a better rapper than Fred Durst, but that’s not a compliment.

It took me until the final 10 minutes of the movie, but I have a pretty good sense of who Bulworth is: He’s the liberal version of Donald Trump when he’s talking like a human being (granted, a drunk, starving, hasn’t slept for four days human being), and he’s Michael Scott when he’s rapping. Whenever Beatty starts dropping rhymes with scattered rhythm, can you not see this being a story arc in an episode of “The Office?”

Yes, it’s a comedy, but “Bulworth” would have been much, much better played straight instead of trying to co-op hip-hop culture.

Froemming: I actually did note that Bulworth reminded me of Michael Scott rapping. Having grown up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was no shortage of embarrassing raps from people who really had no business to be doing that. So, watching this, I began to get flashbacks of all those old commercials featuring rapping moms and dads trying to be hip to their kids in board game commercials.

It was a dark time, folks.

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Brown: How about the commercial for “The Legend of Zelda” on the NES?!

Froemming: Abandon all hope, ye who enter early ‘90s commercials.

Brown: Amidst Bulworth’s debauchery is a guy who looks like an extra from “Casino” who shows up everywhere that Bulworth is, setting off alarms that he is the assassin. So Bulworth is on the run constantly, up until his speech with Hollywood folks in Beverly Hills (where he derides the film industry for making crap. As someone who watches Hollywood crap weekly, bravo, Bulworth).

Froemming: I applauded that as well. Then Bulworth has to point out he has “big Jews” on his schedule (the Hollywood people he is addressing). Another “dear lord” moment for me.

Now, Bulworth is pretty much out of control with saying whatever the hell he wants. And the people are loving it more and more.

Brown: Not to mention Nina (Berry) seems to be loving him more and more. But, when Bulworth hides in the garage of one of his friends trying to cancel the assassination attempt, we find out that Nina is the assassin sent to kill Bulworth. To backtrack, Nina’s brother owes money to L.D. (Don Cheadle), a drug kingpin in her neighborhood, and this is a way for Nina to make money for her brother. But, Bulworth thinks it’s love because Halle (REDACTED) Berry is playing him. He got to kiss Halle Berry. I’d be OK with being shot after that, I think.

Froemming: And what’s more? The shady guy who looks like he is from “Casino” whom is tracking Bulworth down throughout the film is a paparazzi trying to catch him cheating on his wife. I must say, didn’t see that one coming.

Brown: Oh, I was blindsided by Nina being the assassin. Maybe I should watch movies like this earlier in the day, instead of 2 a.m., so my brain functions better.

Anyhow, we get Bulworth going to a debate against his opponent and again, he goes off the rails. He’s drinking out of a flask on air and talking about what kind of thieves insurance companies are. Have we mentioned that the guy who plays the head of the insurance company, who is watching this debate in disgust, is Paul Sorvino, who played the main mob boss in “Goodfellas?” That’ll pay off later.

Froemming: The health insurance bill (which I gathered is somewhat like the Affordable Care Act) plays a fairly large role in this film. It is what connects Bulworth to the insurance companies and is talked about, like you mentioned, during the debate.

But the debate is cut short by the Supermarket King of Minnesota campaign advisor Dennis Murphy (Oliver Platt), who we see throughout this film is losing his mind and snorting cocaine like this movie was “Casino” or something.

Brown: Bulworth finally admits to Nina that there’s a contract out on his life, so she takes him home to South Central L.A. with her family, and this off-his-rocker faux-democrat gets more insight about the black community. When Nina says she’s taking Bulworth’s suit to the cleaners, he goes outside, dressed like a black ‘90s stereotype, and runs into a group of young kids selling drugs. He gives the white-person response of “How about I get you some ice cream.”

And they actually got ice cream. I laughed pretty hard at that.

Froemming: They do, but then the cops show up. And because this is Compton and these kids are usually up to no good, these cops start acting like dicks, which at times reminded me of scenes from “The Wire.” They throw one kid’s ice cream cone into the street.

So, here comes White Knight Bulworth to save the day, asking for badge numbers and using his position in life to frighten the police into being polite. He smashes a cone into a cop’s face even.

And that, folks, is white privilege.

Brown: Like many things in this movie, man, I wish this would happen with a politician in real life.

After this, L.D. picks up Bulworth claiming he knows where Nina is. However, he gets another talking to from L.D., explaining how he’s an entrepreneur in the ghetto and how, again, politicians don’t care about black people. L.D. brings up a lot of salient points, but it gets ruined because Bulworth has to start rapping about it again. Like, did Warren Beatty want to be a rapper in the same vein that Pat Boone decided to make an album of crooning heavy metal songs?

Not only that, but Bulworth will be rapping on national TV soon after this.

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Froemming: Not only does he rap again during a TV special that was rushed through because of his outrageous antics, he cribs everything Nina and L.D. has said to him (damn near verbatim) and raps it on live TV as his own material.

That, that just blew my mind. Not just because he did it, but how Nina and L.D. were OK with it, inspired even.

Brown: I know you made the point earlier about the White Knight, and I agree with you. But Nina and L.D. constantly mention in his movie how their community is held down by politicians that truly don’t care about them. So Bulworth is their avatar in pushing for change in the black community. It’s not progressive. It’s is kind of offensive like you mention. But for characters that feel mistreated by the system, an ally pushing their agenda within the system at least seems like a step in the right direction.

Froemming: I agree. Sometimes I have to remember that the times were different 20 years ago, and a lot of this film is certainly of the latter half of the 1990s in how things were perceived.

Anyway, Bulworth escapes back to Nina’s home, where she reveals to him that she was his assassin, but will not go through with it. They have a tender moment that ends up with….Bulworth passing out on top of her, because he has not slept in days. I liked that, it was a good chuckle.

Brown: I’ve never gotten how people or characters never sleep for days on end. The longest I can go is like 10 hours before nature calls. Congrats on your iron bladder, Bulworth.

Anyhow, with the primary election days away, everyone is frantically asking “Where’s Bulworth,” much like Itchy and Scratchy were to ask “Where’s Poochie?”

With his brash style winning people over, Bulworth easily wins the primary election, and hordes of people are at Nina’s house waiting to see if that’s where Bulworth is.

He finally does emerge out of the guest room, looking as WASPy as ever. You are led to fear that his bender was short-lived and he’d go back to another run-of-the-mill mouthpiece politician. I loved that sudden change in character and the misdirection it leads into.

Froemming: Well, L.D. has decided that Nina’s brother can work his debt off with his new change of heart after Bulworth’s speech (yup). They are going to make their community better. Bulworth leaves the house, where he is confronted by Nina. He admits he felt intimidated by her, and they kiss and she joins him. He is on his way to run for president!

Well, if a Scorsese film has taught me anything, Paul Sorvino doesn’t simply disappear. We see him looming on a bridge during the end scene. And then we see Bulworth get shot, and the bullet came from Sorvino’s direction.

You know what? I could see that happening.

Brown: All this scene needed was “Layla” playing in the background to make it fit in like someone was getting whacked in “Goodfellas” (NSFW).

Then we get left with something that is always conflicting to me: The ambiguous ending.

A homeless man, who shows up periodically throughout the film, starts Bulworth’s descent into madness and rapping by telling him to not be a ghost, but a spirit. And the only way to do that is to have a song. Outside a hospital, the homeless man is repeating this motto again to Bulworth (whom we don’t know is alive or dead) and to the audience.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this ending.

Froemming: I enjoy ambiguous endings. It was something I picked up as a creative writing minor in college. Let the reader/viewer interpret the ending, avoid resolution. Having said that, I am not sure if it works with this film or not, what it being a comedy/satire and all. It kind of switched the tone right at the end.

Brown: Think Bulworth had a basket of onion rings next to his hospital bed when he died/didn’t die? Yeah, I didn’t think the ending worked here because there isn’t that release of tension that comedies are supposed to have. It just adds more tension, and that’s not a good way to end a movie with no sequel or anything.

Froemming: I think it is time to awkwardly rap our way over to recommendations.

WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?

Brown: Absolutely. Not just because of the awkward parallels to today’s election cycle, but because I genuinely had a good time. Beatty is great when he isn’t trying to be Chuck D, and some of the themes from the secondary characters do make you think. This was a much deeper movie than I envisioned. This movie was surprisingly good.

Froemming: For sure. It gets cringeworthy at times, and not in the fun “Curb Your Enthusiasm” way, but in a “holy (REDACTED) Warren Beatty is rapping” sort of way, but I think its central message is still relevant. I say check it out.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down:

Since next month is October, we will be doing horror/Halloween themed films.

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