After a longer than usual absence from the big screen, Warren Beatty has returned in a chancy political comedy. And while it’s not bad when he’s aiming for laughs, the movie switches gears halfway through, attempting to be an earnest political drama…a move that just doesn’t fly.
California Senator Jay Billingston Bulworth (Warren Beatty) is suffering a nervous breakdown during the last weekend before the Democratic primary. He has lost the idealism of his youth, and is jaded by the flood of politically correct sound bytes which monopolize his life. His depression gets deep enough that he hires a hitman to assassinate him before the primary.
His final weekend is a liberating one for him. No future means no political repercussions, and Senator Bulworth decides to finally speak his mind. No topic is safe as he bluntly expresses his filter-free views on race relations, socialism, the entertainment industry, and corporate campaign contributions.
At this point, the movie is on a roll…and at this point, it falters. Rather than sticking with the funny concept of a politician finally speaking his mind, the film gets high minded, and he begins speaking the “truth” (or at least Warren Beatty’s version of it). By the time the film trots out the eternally wise homeless man (Amiri Baraka) and the soft-hearted drug dealer (Don Cheadle), you know it’s gone down the wrong path.
Until then, the film does have several good barbs, and Beatty gives a mostly amusing performance. This time around, he takes a “warts-and-all” approach to filmmaking (obviously sensitive to the soft lighting criticisms he received for Love Affair). However, he still can’t resist placing a romantic angle in this unromantic film. This time around, Halle Berry plays his love interest, a campaign volunteer with an agenda of her own, in a subplot that just doesn’t float with the rest of the movie.
Even though the romance doesn’t quite fit, Berry does a decent job with her role. As do most of the supporting cast, including talents such as Paul Sorvino, Jack Warden and Isaiah Washington. However, the standout here is Oliver Platt, as Bulworth’s frazzled campaign manager, trying to make some sort of sense of his boss’ new enlightenment.
For a political comedy to work, it either needs to forswear any political message, or at least make it subservient to the humor. Bulworth doesn’t follow this advice (or not for long, anyway), and crashes and burns just when it should be hitting new heights.