bonfire-of-the-vanities1Julie Salamon wanted to write a book about what modern Hollywood filmmaking looked like. There was no agenda beyond that for the Wall Street Journal writer. She settled on The Bonfire of the Vanities not because she sniffed trouble, but instead quite the opposite. Based on Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed 1987 bestseller of the same name – the must-read of the late ‘80s, in that it encapsulated and savaged the corrosive greed and indulgence of the decade – the film adaptation seemed sure to be a significant hit, both at the box office and with award-giving bodies. From the moment the wheels of production began to grind, it was viewed as a sure-fire Oscar contender, the sort of prestige project that every major figure in Hollywood wanted to jump aboard. And it boasted a director presumably at the height of his creative powers. Brian De Palma was coming off a blockbuster success with The Untouchables and an acclaimed serious drama in Casualties of War, the latter of which had a vocal contingent of film critics (led by his longtime supporter Pauline Kael) still fuming that it hadn’t been accorded more respect by the Academy. When Salamon brokered unfettered access to the production process with Warner Bros. both she and the studio thought she’d likely be documenting the creation of a new classic. Instead, the resulting book, The Devil’s Candy, became the classic, a pinnacle of long-form entertainment reporting. The consensus verdict on the film was nicely summed up by the subtitle affixed to later editions of the book: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco.

Salamon’s book is a pointed lesson still mostly unlearned in the film business. She documents all the ways that the creative process is compromised – by hubris, ego clashes and an overabundance of cooks – in getting from the best-intended beginnings to the final celluloid print. It’s a slow-motion car crash rendered in living Technicolor, with practically everyone nodding along enthusiastically to ideas that are obviously, transparently awful at every juncture. Taken by itself, The Devil’s Candy is damning as an exposé. The real trouble is that all the turmoil documented in the book is painfully visible in the film De Palma delivered.

In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Hanks plays Sherman McCoy, a proud “Master of the Universe” who brokers $600,000,000 deals on Wall Street with a jaguar’s predatory confidence. Within the next five years, Hanks would have two Best Actor Academy Awards on his trophy shelf, the first to win them back-to-back since no less a revered figure than Spencer Tracy, but at the time he was coming off a string of light comedies and his casting was greeted with skepticism at best. Howls of protest were more common. Thing is, for all the justified acclaim Hanks received for his acting in the decade that followed, he really does seem entirely out of his depth as Sherman, utterly incapable of exuding the necessary self-assurance as he strides through an over-privileged life. Hanks fares significantly better when Sherman’s existence begins to crack and crumble, the result of an inadvertent shortcut taken through the Bronx (depicted in the film as some sort of bombed-out war zone where the abandoned cars ablaze are conveniently grouped together to convey the misery level). When Sherman gets out of the vehicle to move a tire that’s blocking his path, he’s accosted by a couple of thugs. His mistress (Melanie Griffith) moves from the passenger seat to behind the wheel in order to drive into the fray. She winds up striking one of the assailants with the car, leaving him in a coma. His devastating injury at the hands of a rich hit-and-run driver becomes a cause célèbre, and Sherman is soon targeted by an opportunistic district attorney’s office hoping to make an example of him during election season.

bonfire-of-the-vanities2The storyline is built to be a bleak satire with many spokes. Besides Sherman’s absurdly well-compensated profession, Wolfe took aim at the news media and the political power structure, both callously, giddily prepared to exploit the death of a young African-American for cold-hearted gain, and an overburdened justice system worn to the nub by cynicism. Whatever may have stung on the page is reduced to tepid venom dribbling off the screen in De Palma’s film. Judgment may naturally be a part of this sort of story, but self-congratulation on the part of the filmmakers needn’t be. That’s exactly the prevailing tone, however, as De Palma and screenwriter Michael Cristofer set up characters only to knock them down, barely thinking through the impact of their choices. Griffith spits out a series of strained malapropisms straight out of a lazy sitcom and Kim Cattrall is given nothing to do but embody a caricature as Sherman’s wife. Perhaps most notoriously, there was a significant recasting early on when Alan Arkin was replaced by Morgan Freeman as the judge who eventually hears the case against Sherman, the character name changing from Myron Kovitsky to Leonard White. It was intended to upend some of the racially charged themes of Wolfe’s original novel, but it winds up turning significant moments borderline nonsensical, such as the late scene in which a courtroom observer shouts out accusations of racism at the judge and Freeman has to deliver a ridiculous, entirely out of character monologue about the need for human decency.

Besides his tone deaf handling of the satire, De Palma alternates between overly complex visual constructions and shooting scenes in the most perfunctory manner imaginable. It’s as if he was starting to divide into even halves, just like the images in his beloved and often pointless split screens (which of course show up here). He’s either deploying some tour-de-force technique, as with the genuinely impressive five-minute tracking shot through the bowels of a hotel that opens the film, or he’s plainly pointing the camera at the scene before him, evidently bored with the mechanics of cinematic narrative. There’s nothing else on the spectrum between these two vastly separated points. Indeed, it would be tempting to describe De Palma as probably the most bored member on the creative team, except there’s Bruce Willis in the role of boozy journalist Peter Fallow, forecasting the professional disinterest that would soon become his disreputable trademark.

Any hopes that the studio may have had that The Bonfire of the Vanities would succeed despite all its challenges were dashed by the savage reviews and the dismal box office. The film wasn’t just a dud, it immediately joined the ranks of Howard the Duck and Ishtar, big studio efforts that were stupefying in their failure. As Salamon wrote in The Devil’s Candy, “Just as Tom Wolfe’s book had become the book to love for exploring the folly of excess, De Palma’s film has become the film to hate because of its excess.” A disaster like this can be the deathblow to a career, but De Palma bounced back fairly effectively, again getting the keys to major studio efforts within a few years. Even so, most of what followed was pulpier fare, high-gloss efforts aspiring to little more than commercial success. If he rounded the corner in the 1990s with aspirations toward moving towards artier, more prestigious work, The Bonfire of the Vanities decisively dashed those hopes.

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