Writer Harlan Ellison used to tell a wonderful story about listening to a street person lecture a restaurant full of diners on the evils of the Nixon presidency. The fact that the man was obviously deranged didn't stop Ellison from savoring the unsolicited, but welcome, monologue. "What a swell madness," he assessed.
The same emotions arise while watching Warren Beatty's "Bulworth," a political broadside that's haphazard to the point of dementia, yet commendably brazen in its intensity. Director/star Beatty plays Jay Bulworth, a United States senator who's traded his former liberal idealism for a slick, profitable platform of neoconservatism. On the eve of the 1996 elections, Bulworth's conscience catches up with him, plunging him headlong into a nervous breakdown. He contracts the mob to take out a hit on his life, setting up an insurance deal that will provide a huge windfall for his loved ones after he's gone.
The knowledge of his impending demise (coupled with a lack of sleep or nourishment) has a curiously liberating effect on the senator: Back on the campaign trail, he begins to speak his mind instead of his standard PR spiel, shocking audiences with off-the-cuff analyses of Washington corruption, the voting habits of blacks and the importance of Jewish money. A detour to South Central Los Angeles effects an even greater transformation, inspiring Bulworth to begin speaking in hip-hop rhyme and pursue a fetching fly girl (Halle Berry).
Beatty's script makes good fun out of his dubious effectiveness as an emerging spokesperson for the African-American underclass (a running gag has him confused with George Hamilton by a variety of homies). But when the film falls, it falls hard. Bulworth passes unscathed through a series of urban encounters that should earn him a bullet in the head, and there are a few too many "message-movie" speeches, one as ham-fisted as Michael Douglas' nauseating sermon at the end of "The American President." Still, the occasional lapse in logic or restraint is a small price to pay for the many scenes which score a bull's eye on the target of white American ignorance.
Beatty's hero is an effective messenger precisely because he's such an unlikely one. There's nothing in "Bulworth" that we haven't heard before from Spike Lee or John Singleton, but the shock of hearing it come from the mouth of Mr. "Shampoo" makes all the difference in the world. Setting liberal bromides to gangsta-rap rhyme schemes, Beatty is intent on having the best of both worlds, and his lunatic disregard for accusations of pandering or poor taste makes him something of a hero.
A swell madness, indeed.