You’d be excused for watching the opening five minutes of this movie and wondering if you just stumbled into some sort of lost Brian De Palma masterpiece that was too gaudy for its time. The opening tracking shot — for five continuous minutes — follows Bruce Willis as a writer who has become the very thing he sought to destroy — a worshipped public figure immune to consequences for all but the worst crimes. The plot almost writes itself: All you need Tom Hanks as the Wall Street mogul and Willis as the plucky muckraker setting the other up for public humiliation in increasingly ludicrous scenarios.
The problem is that the rest of the movie gets nowhere near that delivering on that promise. The actual Bonfire of the Vanities isn’t even the first act of that hypothetical movie — it’s the dreary prologue.
The film we’re left with desperately wants to be a satire but doesn’t have any of the goods to back it up. De Palma’s instinct for more genre-based tension becomes obvious: He falls back on telling the story as a Hitchcockian thriller, which has promise and moments of energy, but is ultimately not compelling enough to sustain the whole movie.
Hanks and Willis may both very well be miscast, but it’s hard to tell because their characters don’t really have that much that’s interesting stuff to do. Willis’s writer only becomes ascendant in the film’s second half, and even then he’s a pretty minor figure in the overall story until the last couple of scenes. Hanks tries to play the central rogue as a confused gentleman, which is clearly the wrong choice: Vanity of the Bonfires is just begging for him to ham it up as a scheming anti-hero. On the other hand, I can’t really blame him because “confused gentleman” is pretty much the role as written in the misguided script — again, it ends just when the story should be getting good.
As turgid as the whole affair is, there are plenty of reminders of De Palma’s tremendous talent as a director. Some of these shots are visionary: In addition to the opening tour de force continuous shot, he uses all sorts of canted angles and deep focus shots, plus weird juxtapositions and busy backgrounds and color contrasts, to hint at the potential of all sorts of metaphoric visual content that the rest of the movie doesn’t back up.
Despite everything I’ve written so far, it’s not a disaster of a movie. It would probably be more fun if it was. Even a little bit more unhinged energy would go a long way. Instead, it just kind of spins its wheels and wastes the potential of its talent and premise. Being a coherent snoozer might actually be the worst legacy of all.
- Review Project: Tom Hanks Retrospective