Fanning The Flames -- Cynicism Reigns But `Bonfire' Story Turns Flat

XX 1/2 ``The Bonfire of the Vanities,'' with Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman, F. Murray Abraham, Kim Cattrall, Morgan Freeman, John Hancock, Alan King. Directed by Brian De Palma, from a script by Michael Cristofer. Alderwood, Crossroads, Factoria, Guild 45th, Lewis & Clark, Seatac Mall Cinemas. ``R'' - Restricted, due to language.


Great expectations are inevitable when an epic book as acclaimed and popular as Tom Wolfe's ``The Bonfire of the Vanities'' makes it to the screen. So are apprehensions.

How can any filmmaker squeeze Wolfe's big, bustling book about New York's economic and ethical dilemmas into a two-hour film? How does any scriptwriter establish its large cast of characters and achieve the wide-ranging sense of balance that Wolfe did in the book? How can any director deal with its racial concerns without seeming racist?

More than any major film since ``The Color Purple,'' this one is likely to draw fire for defaming black men - although the book is once again the true source of the controversy. ``Bonfire's'' director, Brian De Palma, has partly defused the situation by casting Morgan Freeman in the key role of a no-nonsense Bronx judge (he was Jewish in the book), and he's gone out of his way to emphasize the man's civilized courtroom speeches.

But De Palma can't match Wolfe's vast canvas, which portrayed black and white characters as equally opportunistic, and the movie fails to suggest that everyone is fair game here. Individual scenes do come off as racist, and there are even more that are blatantly misogynistic.

Feminists have often complained about the treatment of women in De Palma's movies, particularly in such thrillers as ``Dressed to Kill'' and ``Body Double,'' but he's never given them a stronger case than ``Bonfire.'' Wolfe's book didn't have much good to say about wealthy, spoiled women (or anyone else), but he didn't turn them into the gargoyles and bimbos of the film.

Perhaps equally at fault is the screenwriter, Michael Cristofer, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright (``The Shadow Box'') who wrote the threadbare Meryl Streep vehicle, ``Falling in Love,'' and reduced John Updike's ``The Witches of Eastwick'' to a thin screenplay. Cristofer is often faithful to the letter of Wolfe's book, while cheapening the spirit of it.

The script follows Wolfe's plot, about a Wall Street giant (Tom Hanks) and his mistress (Melanie Griffith) who accidentally take his Mercedes into the Bronx one night and become involved in an ambiguous hit-and-run accident that sends a black teenager into a coma. The Hanks character eventually becomes a scapegoat in a media circus that feeds a headline-grabbing black preacher (John Hancock), a Jewish politician (F. Murray Abraham) and a drunken reporter (Bruce Willis) who ends up winning a Pulitzer for his distortion of the facts.

By compressing scenes and reducing them to a cartoonish flatness, De Palma's movie does manage to tell this cynical story quite efficiently. It is neither as good nor as bad as it might have been. While it lacks the scope and satirical wit of Philip Kaufman's ``The Right Stuff,'' which was also based on an epic Wolfe best-seller, it has more than enough clever moments to make it a passable entertainment.

The opening sequence is a visual tour-de-force, even if its establishment of the boorish Willis character as the narrator is a big mistake. The casting of Geraldo Rivera as an obnoxious reporter who pushes Willis around is a masterstroke. The scene in which Willis manages to upgrade the status of an apparently average high-schooler to ``honor student'' is as wickedly funny as it was in the book. So are the episodes in which the Hanks character proves that he's no match for his suspicious wife or the police detectives who track him down.

While most of the performances are over-the-top, Hanks lends some poignancy to the role of the unlikely victim, and Freeman suggests what the movie might have been if it had been narrated from the judge's perspective. His last speech, unfortunately, is so poorly written that it pulls the rug out from under him.

If you loved Wolfe's book, you may very well hate the movie. If you simply liked the novel, you may be simultaneously entertained and disappointed by what De Palma and Cristofer have done to it. If you don't know the book, you may find the movie mildly enjoyable, while wondering what all the fuss is about.