Nothing, as Victor Hugo might have said, is more pitiful than an idea whose time has passed. That goes double for Warren Beatty's "Bulworth," which seeks to exploit two threadbare phenomena: rap music and political liberalism, both of which peaked years ago.
Star/director/co-writer/co-producer/longtime lefty Democratic activist Beatty presumably hoped his movie would help reinvigorate a party whose current flirtation with centrism on some issues he bewails. But his efforts backfire, as "Bulworth" winds up not persuasively advocating liberalism but rather illuminating its intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
As the film begins, it's 1996, and sixtyish Sen. Jay Bulworth (D-Calif.) is a former true-blue liberal who out of electoral necessity has moved toward the center. But he's so distraught over betraying his principles that he pays to have himself assassinated during a weekend of primary campaigning in Los Angeles. (Hey, it could happen.) Now with literally nothing to lose, Bulworth abandons his Clintonian platitudes about the new millennium and his tough talk on the failures of affirmative action and the need for welfare reform in favor of, well, good old leftist ranting - with a twist.
In little more than a day, galvanized by an appearance at a black church and a subsequent visit to an after-hours hip-hop nightclub, Bulworth emerges as a supporter of such old-fashioned leftist causes as socialized medicine and massive wealth redistribution - support he feels compelled to express in a series of foul-mouthed raps. Happy with his new-found hipness, he calls off the assassination and goes on to win 71 percent of the vote in what had been expected to be a close primary race. Power to the people, as they said.
The plausibility quotient of "Bulworth" is virtually zero, starting with its preposterous contention that a candidate with a Tom Haydenesque platform and a propensity for gutter language is attractive to the electorate, even in California and even in a Democratic primary. (In the face of common sense and electoral evidence, Beatty disagrees. He believes that "public feeling has more in common with what we call liberalism than with what we call conservatism" and that entertainment has an advantage over politics because in entertainment "you have this great luxury [of being able to] say things in a vulgar way." Luxury?)
Not just silly but downright offensive is the movie's substance, or what passes for it. In the television appearance that supposedly turns voters in Bulworth's favor, he's basically parroting a narcotics dealer's spew regarding how budget cuts and other governmental indifference forces ghetto residents, some of them grade-school-aged, into the only growth industry left - selling drugs. Dutiful leftists that they are, Beatty and co-writer Jeremy Pikser don't forget to put into the dealer's mouth the allegations that the despicable CIA introduced crack to the ghetto.
In "Bulworth," Republicans are so far beyond the pale that they're barely worth bashing. The only vaguely conservative (or, better said, anti-liberal) characters are a corrupt lobbyist for the insurance industry and a cartoonishly racist policeman who menaces a group of inner-city kids until Bulworth, by this time dressed in homeboy garb - a stocking cap, shades, and baggy pants - comes to their rescue.
Finally, there's the surprise ending. I won't give it away, but I must note that it conveys Beatty's paranoid hostility to the system - you know, big business and its mouthpieces in government - more effectively than all of Bulworth's raps combined.
A part of you wants to believe that Beatty can't, simply cannot believe these things. Maybe, just maybe this is a parody of sorts on the inanity that is the radical left. Alas, no such luck. Based on quite a few of Beatty's remarks in recent interviews, pronouncements notable only for their amazing incoherence, absurdity, or both - he really means it.
A sampling: Beatty has compared today's rappers to the "protest poets of the '60s in Moscow"; said the Democrats' mission should be "opposition to the rich" (presumably not to include Warren Beatty); and meandered from mentioning that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were fatally shot to the comment that Gary Hart and Jerry Brown were "assassinated in other ways."
And, paraphrasing one of the raps from the film, he told the hip-hop magazine the Source, "What... is obscene is the disparity of wealth in this country... Words like 'f--,' "motherf--er,' 'c--sucker' [aren't] obscene, [they're] attention-getting. The real obscenity black folks are living with is trying to believe a motherf--ing word that Democrats and Republicans say."
Not surprisingly, the man's the toast of Hollywood these days.