Watered-down as it may be, Bonfire of the Vanities politically and artistically is a challenge -- a visceral wake-up call to the mind and the senses. To watch De Palma lampoon the self-indulgence of the '80s, as Wolfe did much more straightforwardly in his book, is to be forced to confront a long list of off-kilter images and incongruous tones -- embodied here by the innately good-natured Tom Hanks's performance as Sherman McCoy, a slimy, adulterous investment banker; Melanie Griffith's gleefully absurd vixen mistress Maria Ruskin; and, most important of all, the sudden and jarring shift from farce to straight-faced moral declaration that is Morgan Freeman's masterful courtroom speech.
"I don't do satire," De Palma reportedly said in an interview. And so it is true. De Palma prefers to wear his parody with a big, dumb grin -- or with his fangs fully protracted. Tom Wolfe's novel was satire; the movie is broad comedy, playing up its characters' vices and follies to viciously cartoonish levels, rendering them more laughable than contemptible. This is why it was ultimately necessary that the movie's corporate sleaze bucket be played by Hanks, who up to that point had been tied to light comedies. And why, naturally, Melanie Griffith chose to make her character more daffy than sexy; likeable or detestable, De Palma's protagonists fumble at everything they do. And it's worth noting that both actors punctuate their billboard-size representations of greed, racism, and infidelity with some of the more gut-busting moments in movie history, such as when Griffith squeals at the ominous sight of two approaching black men in the Bronx, "Oh my God, natives!"
De Palma's characterizations may not have the subtle tongue-in-cheek wit of Tom Wolfe, but his version of the story is both more comic and angrier for it. His sinuous camerawork, (expertly captured by master cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond), suggests a fiery examination of New York's racial and economic head-butts -- if critics were searching for the film's muscle, this is where it is. A glorious time-lapse shot opens the film, observing 24 hours in the city's vibrant goings-on from atop the Chrysler's building's high perch. On one hand ecstatically unifying all New Yorkers under one sky, the image is also strangely foreboding, as a peering eagle statue looking down on the landscape insinuates the precarious social imbalances that exist among different neighborhoods. Never since has there been such a brilliantly singular distillation of a city's cultural strife.
For all its polish, Bonfire of the Vanities can become stunningly hot-tempered, a quality most journalists are too quick to ignore. A cutting sorrowfulness underlies slapstick humor that can quickly turn violent. When guests at a cocktail party condescend to his downfall, McCoy runs them out by blowing shotgun pellets into the ceiling. Here Hanks's point of view is the camera's, and so his character's frustration is the audience's, and that of every one of New York's underdogs, rich and poor, who struggle to find genuine human feeling within the city's partisan theatrics (signified here by a crooked Mayor, a savage media, and a pretentious intelligentsia, one of whom hysterically fawns over a gay poet by saying, "He's on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. He has AIDS.").
But not hopelessly, as Morgan Freeman articulates in his genius climactic speech -- absent from the novel -- playing the only good-natured character, a judge who presides over McCoy's case. With a gavel in his hand to symbolize De Palma's own measured plea for common sense, and approaching the camera directly as if to lecture the audience, Freeman turns various groups' self-righteousness back on them, exposing each one's duplicity and crying out for "decency." "It's what your mother taught you," he explains, in a down-home vernacular that reverses, radically, the movie's giddy parody into earnest speechifying. It's still self-aware, of course, but the sentiment is meant sincerely.
De Palma doesn't do straight satire, and as such his coda puts everything prior into a clarifying moral focus while simultaneously challenging the way we watch movies: In an unjust world, law is our "feeble attempt" to make things right. Bonfire of the Vanities is De Palma's.