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Friday, June 11, 1999

Celestial squoosh and political pablum

NO MORE BULL -- Warren Beatty stars in "Bulworth." Heaven, as Talking Heads' singer David Byrne once informed us, is a place where nothing ever happens. Here to make that point abundantly clear is "What Dreams May Come," a CG-heavy film that features Robin Williams in touchy-feely mode, exulting in an idyllic afterlife that looks like it was designed by Vincent van Gogh on ketamine.

Who knows? Maybe it was. According to this film's spiritual cosmology, God has left heaven as an unfettered playground for the whims of our imagination, where treasured memories of our past life can be fashioned into our own little virtual reality. Yet where the recent (and excellent) film "Afterlife" by Hirokazu Koreeda has a similar premise, it chose to focus on the emotional resonance of such memories. "What Dreams May Come," being a Hollywood film, is more concerned with the spectacle: No feeling is worth having if it can't be expressed in a few million dollars' worth of special effects.

Williams is up there in this impressionistic nirvana of liquid, oil-paintlike flora (that goes "squoosh" when you step in it) because, well, he's dead, and his vision of the afterlife is formed from memories of his beloved wife's paintings. But just as he's getting used to flying and walking on water and all the other benefits of being ethereal, he learns that his much-loved (and alive) wife, Annabella Sciorra, is going mad with grief back on earth. Driven to suicide by despair, she winds up in hell, and it's up to Robin -- with the help of a puckish Cuba Gooding Jr. -- to go in there and bring her back. (However, in one big "improvement" on the Orpheus myth, Hollywood has given us a happy ending, which sort of robs the tale of its meaning.)

If this all sounds a mite grim for an entertainment, well, it is. The film can be genuinely moving at times, like when the Williams' dead spirit tries to reach out to his lonely wife, only to have his presence intensify her grief -- he has to leave her and move on. Director Vincent Ward's visual ideas are also ridiculously impressive, especially the paintlike environment in which Williams finds himself, which incorporates motifs from Hieronymous Bosch, Botticelli and Caspar David Friedrich. The sequences in hell, with a sea of faces of the damned, are disturbingly haunting.

Nevertheless, the story is as blunt as one might expect from a Ron Bass assembly-line script ("My Best Friend's Wedding," "Rain Man"). The film's cosmology is confused: It glibly mixes Catholic doctrine on suicide and capital-G "God" with Hindu beliefs in reincarnation, and a massive dose of New Age self-obsession in its idea that the afterlife is no more than what you project into it, "visualization" par excellence. In its attempt to be all things to all potential customers, "What Dreams May Come" pointedly refrains from getting too specific on the concept of God. In fact, they barely even mention him/her: "So where's God in all this?" asks Williams. "Oh, he's up there somewhere," replies Gooding.

Ultimately, the film's message is that this world is as good as it gets, and the best heaven can give us is letting us play with our memories of happier days on earth: kind of like being stuck in a magical nursing home for all eternity, if you ask me. Heaven and hell are the ultimate realms of the unimaginable, and by limiting its vision so narrowly to our experiences of this world, "What Dreams May Come" seems a bit of a cop-out. It's hard to buy the idea that there is no experience of the divine beyond oneself.

Moving from heaven to hell -- well, the world of American politics, at least -- director/star Warren Beatty gives us "Bulworth," which is also a tale of redemption. Cynical, but formerly caring, liberal Sen. Jay Bulworth (Beatty) has long since sold out to the special interests. His campaign for re-election is a lifeless exercise in stale Clintonian cliches: "Hi! I'm Jay Bulworth. I believe in a hand-up, not a hand-out."

Bitter, burnt-out and boozed-up, Bulworth takes out a big life insurance policy on himself, and hires a hit man to whack him. With but hours to live, and zonked out by sleep deprivation and alcohol, Bulworth realizes he's got nothing to lose, and starts rambling.

This is the film's big selling point, as the near-lunatic Bulworth engages in some burn-all-the-bridges, provocatively un-PC truth-telling. When he speaks to a congregation at an African-American church, the woozy Bulworth abandons his prepared comments to tell the audience "If you don't put down the crack pipe and stop getting behind football players-turned-murderers, you'll never get rid of people like me."

Later, at a Hollywood fundraising party: "My guys aren't stupid; they always put the big Jews on the schedule. Let me check [as he looks down at his prepared remarks] -- sure, there's something about Farrakhan in there." He then begins to tell it like it is, trashing the manipulative power of big money and the media to roars of public approval.

This is fine for awhile, but then Bulworth -- in a state of mental breakdown -- begins speaking only in rap. While momentarily amusing, once the initial shock wears off, the raps themselves are scarcely clever or funny, never mind funky: Beatty busts rhymes more like Dr. Seuss than Dr. Dre. True, he's supposed to be lousy, but Beatty's poor sense of rhythm and cadence is more embarrassing to watch than comical.

Ditto for Beatty's self-glorification, which involves Halle Berry as a lover 40 years his junior. Then there's the flock of young black females who are there basically to follow him around and swoon on his every word; this great white liberal hero to deliver the blacks from themselves stuff gets more than a bit condescending.

The fact that so many critics have swooned over "Bulworth" just goes to show you that critics are so starved for any sort of content in a Hollywood film, that something as hackneyed, narcissistic and barely risible as this will be treated a bold and brilliant political satire. (See Tim Robbins' "Bob Roberts" for a much bolder film.) The sentiments behind "Bulworth" are certainly admirable -- slamming soundbite politics and the corrupting influence of money -- but the execution is middlin' at best. "Bulworth" has its moments, but not nearly enough of them.

"What Dreams May Come" is playing at Marunouchi Piccadilly and other theaters. "Bulworth" is playing at Chanter Cine and Cinema Qualite.

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