Picks and Pans Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

updated 01/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith

Whenever the essential nastiness of this movie's satire of American society shows through, it is wickedly funny in lampooning our obsessions with money and fame.

From the start, though (Hanks dragging his dog for a walk), director Brian DePalma lapses into idle, slapsticky digressions. You don't get angry at what he's attacking, or defensive; you just get weary.

Hanks is a rich New York City investment broker driving with Griffith, his mistress, when they get lost in the Bronx. Two young black men accost them, and Griffith accidentally hits one with the car. The film's focus is the gradual escalation of this incident into a scandal, with Hanks ending up on trial as a pawn of district attorney F. Murray Abraham's ambitions for higher office.

Playwright Michael Cristofer freely adapted Tom Wolfe's novel, with varying results. There's the acerbic side, such as Kevin Dunn, as Hanks's lawyer, commenting on their common school ties: "Yale is terrific for anything you want to do—as long as it doesn't involve real people."

And there's a stilted side: Morgan Freeman as a judge intoning, "Decency isn't a deal or an angle or a con or a hustle—it's what your grandmother taught you."

Hanks and Griffith, as a ruthless belle, are fine; Bruce Willis, as a reporter whose scoop leads to Hanks's arrest, handles his peripheral role easily enough. They and the audience are constantly buffeted, though, by such phenomena as the appearance of Geraldo Rivera, playing a sensationalistic reporter.

It's clear DePalma and Cristofer, like Wolfe, wanted to decry how manipulable we all are. It's also clear they never quite figured out how to do it with this movie. (R)

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