Bonfire of the Vanities (1990): De Palma’s Calamity of Wolfe’s Novel

Bonfire of the Vanities, Brian De Palma’s version of Tom Wolfe’s poignant satirical novel is a shallow, poorly written, and wrongly cast picture–a misfire.

What went wrong in a film that was dubbed by some as Bonfire of the Calamities?  Everything, from conception to writing to casting to execution—the whole movie rings false.

Tom Hanks is miscast as Sherman McCoy, the “master of the universe,” a Wall Street investor who makes millions while enjoying the good life and the sexual favors of Maria Ruskin (Melanie Griffith), a Southern belle golddigger.

Sherman and Maria are driving back to Maria’s apartment from the airport when Maria takes a wrong turn on the expressway and the two find themselves in the South Bronx. She sees a black youth approaching Sherman’s car and Maria, frightened, guns the engine, runs over the teenager and kills him. The two drive away and decide not to report the accident to the police.

Meanwhile, alcoholic journalist Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis, also miscast), anxious for a story to make good with his editor, comes upon the hit-and-run tale through local black community activist named Reverend Bacon (John Hancock).

Bacon plans to use the hit-and-run case as a rallying point for the black community, while Fallow recognizes the press coverage inherent in prosecuting the callow Sherman.

As a result, the New York community gets polarized into different factions, each using and abusing the tragic incident for their own cynical personal and political purposes.

In the end, Sherman is left without any allies to support him except for the sympathetic Judge White (Morgan Freeman) and the remorseful Fallow.

In treatment and tone, De Palma’s messy adaptation of Wolfe’s timely novel is not only unfaithful to the source material but downright off.

Strangely enough, especially for a stylist and stylist director like the Palma, the picture is also technically inept

Brian De Palma makes a cameo as a prison guard.


Running time: 126 minutes.

Directed by Brian DePalma.

Theaters:  December 21, 1990