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A Chronicle of Catastrophe : THE DEVIL'S CANDY: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood, By Julie Salamon (Houghton Mifflin: $24.95; 384 pp.)

November 10, 1991|Michael Wilmington | Wilmington writes about film for The Times, L.A. Style and Film, Comment

Anyone looking for culpability will find it lavishly spread around: the usual suspects, the '80s, and most of all, standard Hollywood practice. It was Guber who hired screenwriter Christofer, whose gentle, tentative and "humane" sensibility never jelled with Wolfe's torrential wit and sarcasm--thereby killing most of the humor. Guber also insisted on casting youthful, likable Tom Hanks in the lead, having vetoed or ignored both William Hurt and the favorite candidate of both De Palma and Mike Nichols--Steve Martin. De Palma himself is responsible for the bizarre metamorphosis of Wolfe's feisty Judge Mike Kovitsky, irascible Bronx Jewish jurist, into the stern, fatherly Afro-American "Judge White," played by Morgan Freeman. Freeman's last-minute casting--over Walter Matthau, Alan Arkin and the man on whom Kovitsky was actually modeled, Burton Roberts--created a series of location crises and upped the budget by, in Salamon's estimate, $5 million.

The modern star system created the movie's major casting gaffe. Bruce Willis expressed interest in the part of Peter Fallow, snobbish British journalist for a Post-like tabloid who breaks McCoy's story, and was promptly snapped up, $5-million price tag and all, with the part completely overhauled--destroyed actually--to accommodate his smirking-stud persona.

Salamon has her faults: historical errors (Charles Foster Kane's gubernatorial race is described as Kane-for-Congress), weird judgments ("Catch-22" is a "great film"), an alarming insistence on trumpeting the virtues and achievements of "Vanities' " second-unit director, Eric Schwab (he almost becomes the book's Vicki Lester to De Palma's foundering Norman Maine), an occasionally mundane style, and an apparent belief that "The Godfather 2" is the last part of Coppola's trilogy.

But, overall, she's a crackerjack reporter, one who never loses the core of the story. Conceived in the beginning as a definitive portrait of '80s greed, "Bonfire" quickly became a casualty of the '80s: of big money, of social and racial stereotypes, of the studio's insistence on "insurance" (cuties Hanks and Griffith, superstar Willis) and of De Palma's hapless attempts to redeem Wolfe's implicit racism by dragging in Morgan Freeman and having him yell: "Decency! Please!"

That quagmire of compromise is "Candy's" sticky center. "Final Cut," Richard Bach's book on "Heaven's Gate," suggested that movies could be undone by the willfulness of their talent; it was an implicit call for greater studio control. "The Devil's Candy" takes the opposite tack. It suggests that the rigidity of the current studio system--its insistence on "elements," marketability, big stars, simple stories and the tyranny of market research--dooms a project like "The Bonfire of the Vanities," or any other offbeat effort. The studio's basic philosophy is clearly that "difficult" (literate, thoughtful, iconoclastic, outrageous) pictures of any kind should be avoided. Since they would have preferred to make a Tom Hanks/ Melanie Griffith/Bruce Willis sex-comedy instead of "Bonfire of the Vanities," that's what they made--almost.

As it happens, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" was not 1990's worst movie--or even close to it. It was just the most disappointing, mostly because of the book's lost potential, and because that $50 million seems invisible on the screen. Despite some spectacular De Palma visuals, the film is so flat, airless and uninvolving, so unevocative of Manhattan and the Bronx, so filled with long set pieces and studio interiors, it looks like the medium-budget version of "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Yet, irony of ironies. . . . Wolfe's book--despite its "problem areas," its Tory elitism, "unlikable characters" and implict racism--is potentially wonderful movie material. But not for the vaguely nice-nasty expose that Christofer wrote or the "Dr. Strangelovian" satire De Palma envisioned; its truer models probably lie in the kaleidoscopic vein of "La Dolce Vita" or the best '30's screwball comedies. Then it might have found its level: a hip, juicy, multileveled modern extravaganza (with, probably, a more sympathetic look at the black milieu that Wolfe travestied or ignored).

Instead, like the "Vanities" that Savonarola's 15th-Century followers tossed on the Florentine bonfires, Wolfe's satire, its promise, and the picture itself all wound up in the inferno of the marketplace. Salamon, at her best, puts this across. All the millions vanished. All the candy was eaten. The devil grabbed his dues. And after the hustles came down, the movie makers and public were left with a crock.

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