Play It Again – The Bonfire of the Vanities (Flop Edition #2)

Bonfire of the Vanities

By Jess Lomas
September 4, 2013

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!). This month, we’re looking exclusively at epic movie flops.

Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities trades the scathing social critique that made the novel a bestseller for big-star names, and ultimately loses its audience during its lengthy run.

Sherman McCoy (Tom Hanks) thinks he has it all; a self-declared “Master of the Universe” who works on Wall Street, keeps a wife (Kim Cattrall), and entertains a mistress, Maria (Melanie Griffith). One night, while driving Maria home, a wrong turn finds the couple in the South Bronx where, under the impression a pair of black youths are going to attack Sherman, Maria accidentally reverses the car over one of them. They leave the scene of the crime but the trail leads back to Sherman’s Mercedes and he is charged with the felony.

Bonfire of the Vanities

Following the case is alcoholic reporter Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis), who discovers that the district attorney Abe Weiss (F. Murray Abraham) is being coerced by the black community to make an example of Sherman’s case, and is fast tracking his mayoral campaign by representing the minorities in New York City. Overseeing the proceedings is no-nonsense Judge Leonard White (Morgan Freeman). The Judge and Fallow appear to be Sherman’s only allies in a city intent on locking him up and throwing away the key.

The film is bookended by Fallow’s book launch, detailing the case and showcasing his new celebrity status in a manner most writers can only dream of. That we are instantly exposed to Fallow’s drunkard and slovenly ways only sets us up to distrust him. Pretty much all the characters we encounter are extremely unlikeable. While this may work in Wolfe’s novel, De Palma’s handling of these societal extremes comes off as preachy and cartoony, with the courtroom scenes resembling a circus of exaggerated performances.

In attempting to humanise Sherman’s elitist character, especially in the casting of the likeable Hanks, and provide a thin veil of comedy throughout, much of the scathing satire is lost. Instead we are given a diluted drama about greed, class, and racism with little tension and few memorable moments, ultimately making The Bonfire of the Vanities an example of wasted opportunities.


The Bonfire of the Vanities is available on Quickflix.

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