The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

Genres - Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Black Comedy, Satire  |   Release Date - Dec 19, 1990 (USA)  |   Run Time - 125 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Keith Phipps

Time has been a little kinder to Brian De Palma's critically and financially disastrous adaptation of Tom Wolfe's gilded-age '80s satire, but only marginally. Dismissed as lightweight, the film's initial criticism concerned the perceived miscasting of Tom Hanks as Bonfire's troubled protagonist. The intervening years have revealed Hanks to be a multi-faceted actor, casting his performance as Sherman in a different light -- but that doesn't excuse the mistake of making his Wall Street "Master of the Universe" character likable. No one gets off easy in Wolfe's novel, but here De Palma has fatally blunted its edges. A fantastic, but irrelevant, extended-take opening shot reveals immediately that he's the right director for the wrong movie. Scaled down, Wolfe's story loses much of its impact, with De Palma opting for easy satire where the book depended on the slow accumulation of details; '80s' New York could probably be recreated in its entirety from the novel, while the film leaves far too many blanks to be filled in. Complicating matters is the disastrous decision to place much of Wolfe's prose in the mouth of a drunken reporter played by Bruce Willis -- in full Bruce Willis-mode -- which makes for an off-putting clash of sensibilities. A scene in which a doom-minded Hanks attends +Don Giovanni works well until the succeeding scenes hammer home the parallels, again and again; the satire was already painted in broad, ugly strokes. Only the stellar cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond shines through the morass.