Approximately 78 obscenities and 25 profanities; adultery, sexual innuendo and brief female nudity; vandalism and brief violence; drunkenness, racial slurs, perjury, and lying.
“What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26) asks the fictional author Peter Fallow on the way to a party in honor of his best-selling book about the fall and purported redemption of a Wall Street yuppie. Thus, starts the long-awaited film based on Tom Wolfe’s best-seller, BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. This satiric film attempts to puncture the mean spirited myths of the left, but fails in the end for lack of faith in the ideals which would rout the cruel posturing of the humanists.
Set in a New York City brimming with scheming politicians, avaricious lawyers and jaded ministers, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES is about a philandering Park Avenue bond salesman, who meets his downfall when he makes a wrong turn off the Tri-Borough Bridge into the bowels of the South Bronx, setting off a chain of events that lays bare the racial hypocrisy of the liberal elite. Peter Fallow, an author just arriving at his moment of fame and fortune, narrates the story he helped create about Sherman McCoy, the Wall Street, “Master of the Universe” bond broker. Insulated by wealth and power, Sherman ignores his waspish, socialite wife to commit adultery with the lusty, Southern peach Maria, the pampered wife of a Jewish tycoon.
During the unplanned detour through the South Bronx, Maria panics while attempting to escape two would-be black robbers, hitting one of them while trying to maneuver Sherman’s Mercedes. When one of the assailants ends up in the hospital in a coma unable to speak, an opportunistic assistant district attorney plays into the hands of a jaded black reverend, who wishes to turn the incident into an racial issue so that he and the youth’s mother can cash in on a civil suit against the city and the hospital.
At this point, Peter Fallow, a drunk and almost-out-of-his-job reporter, is assigned to investigate the matter. The headlines scream “Honor student in coma,” but Peter finds the incident is really a political football among self-interest groups, who are using the tragedy for their own selfish motives.
Sherman’s career, wife and life, meanwhile, are hanging in the balance. When he keeps hearing a message of repentance one night while at the opera, Sherman finally decides to come clean. Sherman is arrested and arraigned, and the assistant D.A. tries to play off the emotionalism of the community in order to win a case for the people.
When the prosecution later enlists Maria to perjure herself, Sherman plays for the court a tape recording he obtained from Peter in which Maria admits her guilt. Believing that “the truth won’t set him free,” Sherman lies about the nature of the tape. The case against him is dismissed.
None of this has really escaped the judge’s attention, though, who defines law for the courtroom as man’s attempts to set down standards of decency, a decency that is not a power that goes looking for votes, money and the like, but is what your grandmother taught you. “Now go and be decent!” he says.
The lesson in morality seems to be lost on Peter, whose chronicling of the account catapults him to fame and stardom. Turning Matthew 16:26 on its head, Peter narrates that “Sherman lost the world, but gained his soul,” while Peter, having forfeited his soul, has now gained the world, implying that there are compensations for losing your soul, having become “the man of the moment and the hero of the evening.”
Thus, the movie successfully satirizes the greed, envy and shallowness of our age until the very end when it collapses for want of a touch of good to highlight its penetrating conceit. In fact, it fails because the earnest judge in the pivotal scene does not proclaim the biblical basis for the standards of the decency he so admires; instead, he pauses and attributes this decency to something our grandmothers taught us, which may or may not be the case for the viewer. Without a standard of Truth at this critical juncture, the bombastic end of Fallow and company appears less loathsome and more acceptable than it should, leaving the audience in a quandary about the intrinsic worth of the values that would cause us to gain our souls.
On the one hand, the film wants to make a bonfire out of the vain things that keep us from being decent people, but on the other hand, it fails to adequately expose the empty essence of those very things. Thus, the film tries, but fails to illustrate the truth expressed in Ecclesiastes 1:2, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher… all is vanity.”
However, it does cause us to pause and ponder, “If only Sherman had stopped and waited upon the Lord, then none of this might have come upon him.” Also, the film brings to mind many of the appropriate sayings from The Book of Proverbs: “A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps” (14:15); “No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of trouble” (12:21); “Misfortune pursues the sinner” (13:20); and, Proverbs 14:8 mentions that what a fool believes to be prudent (but is really folly) does not bring success; instead, it tends toward his ruin.
Thus, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES ultimately fails as coherent satire, and, in so failing, it fails as a film. Though funny in spots, if the movie indeed wanted to make a statement about decency, perhaps it should have started with the more than 100 instances of obscenity and profanity that profusely litter the dialogue.
Furthermore, the casting, though competent, betrays the Hollywood sensibilities that refused to let the satire ring true to the book; thus, Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman seem out of place as scions of Park Avenue. Having been brought up in this rarified atmosphere, these mismatched actors seem ill-suited to the task of tackling the myths of our illiberal age. To really understand these people and the humor of their foibles, it would be better to read the book and let the movie slip into the oblivion of the video store.
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