Worth Bull

BRENTWOOD—”I am so fucked.”

It’s not exactly “Where’s the beef,” or “Whoomp, there it is” or “Read my lips,” but as summer movie catchphrases go, it looked like 1998’s odds-on choice a few months back. The line was to have been uttered by a camcorder-wielding character in Godzilla, as the monster’s scaly foot came thundering down toward him. Godzilla, though, wanted a PG-13 rating, which—by MPAA lore, if not regulation—limits a movie to one “fuck.” The epithet was apparently already being used elsewhere in the movie, and so the line did not survive.

And what Hollywood figure would you most expect to use the phrase in real life? Warren Beatty, whose film Bulworth recently had its nationwide release moved to just a few days before Godzilla opens (Bulworth debuts in New York and Los Angeles today, Godzilla nationwide next Wednesday). They call it counterprogramming, Culturebox calls it suicide. If Bulworth throughout its entire theatrical run can gross what Godzilla makes over the Memorial Day holiday, there will be champagne all around at Fox.

That, of course, is the kind of bottom-line thinking Beatty says he despises. So let us not judge Bulworth on the basis of its box office. But let us not judge it on the basis of its noble intentions, either. Is Bulworth really “a celluloid shiv … shoved deep in the heart of the … status quo”? Its hero asserts that private enterprise has a stranglehold on American politics. This is a surprise to whom, exactly? Beatty’s press interviews—filled with wonderful anecdotes about Clifford Odets, Huey Newton, and Ronald Reagan—have been more entertaining than a lot of the movie, much of which is Beatty rapping, and rapping badly. It’s an updating of the idea that drove Ishtar: that we’ll be endlessly tickled by the suave Warren looking (intentionally) goofy. That, I fear, is a miscalculation. Beatty’s image isn’t so iconic in the minds of today’s moviegoer that subverting it is wildly hilarious. As for the notion that Bulworth the politicized B-Boy could send shivers down the spines of the Murdochs and Perelmans of the world … please.

Granted, this is a smart, provocative movie, with a performance from Oliver Platt that is truly off-tha-hook, a film reflective of Beatty’s decadeslong concerns over the corruption of government by money. Why it’s being released now—instead of in the fall, when more serious-minded moviegoers could warm to it and keep it commercially viable through the first quarter award season—is anyone’s guess. But just like the rappers with whom Beatty hung out to prep this picture, the audience has a pretty good idea of what subject really obsesses Beatty, and he hasn’t touched it since Shampoo. Why not? It seems a waste. Warren Beatty not making movies about sex is like Oliver Stone not making movies about conspiracies.