Brian De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities is an interesting movie to watch from a modern perspective. It appears to be a satire of the go-get-it attitude fostered by American culture in the 1980s, but today it can be applied to the prevalent hatred for the upper class that elevates politicians like Bernie Sanders into the mainstream.
You have all sorts of characters that could be parodies of modern figures and movements. The black preacher and the outrage he manufactures for the hoodlum put into a coma by Sherman McCoy’s wrong turn can easily be equated to the black lives matter movement of today. The journalists eager to get the scoop on Sherman could be the mainstream media, constantly looking for the next example of the rich striking down. It’s a culture that’s as prevalent today as it was in the 80s.
The film, however, never really reaches the heights it seems to aim for. The myriad of characters that circle Sherman like sharks who smell blood are never fleshed out well enough to fill out the satire the way it deserves to be. Simply put, there are too many characters and the film stretches itself too thin to properly deliver a biting satire of the caricature of each of them.
Take, for example, the assistant district attorney that spies an opportunity to get in good with the mayor. While it’s clear what he’s doing and to what end, we don’t get a good feel for what exactly this man is doing wrong. To anyone viewing the film he’s simply trying to prosecute a man who’s injured a Bronx teenager in a hit and run incident. We don’t get a good enough feel for the cycism this character was clearly meant to inspire, and as a result we rather sympathize with his crusade to bring the perpetrator to justice.
The Bruce Willis character is also given far too little screen time to be able to understand his exact motivations. What exactly does he see in this story that’s so spellbinding? Why does he so badly want to capture it? We never get enough of a peek through to figure him out entirely.
Morgan Freeman comes off better than most as the intelligent, real world judge who attempts to inject a bit of sense into the frothing craze of the situation at hand. The scene at the end where he lectures his mad courtroom is the finest point in the film, and it was when the underwritten message of the movie came to light for me.
And underwritten it is. Unfortunately this means an end result where most viewers will probably come away sympathizing with the mobs of opportunistic individuals rather than being disgusted by them. The original Tom Wolffe novel, although I haven’t read it, regarded these people with a white hatred for the opportunistic pigs they were. Anyone viewing the film without this in mind would probably enjoy seeing the millionaire adulterer Wall Street socialite taken down a peg in life. And I don’t think that was what was intended.
De Palma utilizes interesting stylistic flourishes to jazz up the film, but it’s impossible to make a good movie out of a script where the characters are underdeveloped. As a result of this the characters, rather than being brilliant caricatures of their real life counterparts, come off as plain unlikable. Thankfully the characters are eccentric enough and the directorial style charming so as to make the film an entertaining romp. It’s just a shame it couldn’t reach the heights that it aspired to, it would’ve been a fine satire that would be ever as relevant today as it was when it came out in 1990.