Tom Wolfe's saga about Sherman McCoy has by now become one of
America's favorite urban legends, a cautionary tale about a "master of the
universe" who was earning millions on Wall Street and enjoying the pleasures
of his wife, his mistress and his seductive lifestyle when he made one fatal
wrong turn off the expressway, and found himself in the South Bronx.

There, in a ludicrous comedy of errors, his mistress ran their car into a black
youth she thought was attacking them, the youth died, and the case became an
overnight sensation. Sherman, whose life was graced with every material and
sensual excess, found himself plunged into a publicity circus, suffered the
indignity of being jailed, and became the target of white political opportunists
and black self-promoters who saw him as a convenient and hateful symbol.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe's novel about McCoy, was savage and
sarcastic, especially in the way it dissected the motives of every single
character. Brian De Palma's new movie is lacking in just that quality; it is not
subtle or perceptive about the delicate nuances of motive that inspire these
people. My notion is that Wolfe sees every single one of his characters in
exactly the same light, as selfish, grasping swine who want to get their hands
on everything they can, and whose approaches are suggested by the
opportunities they find around them in whatever walk of life they occupy. The
movie doesn't seem to despise anyone all that much.

Sherman McCoy, who makes millions and lives in a Park Avenue duplex, is
no less selfish than the others in the novel, but he is not much of a survivor. He
does well on the sedate battlefield of Wall Street, but when he runs into real
fighters - cops, neighborhood activists, politicians, newspaper reporters,
publicity hounds, ambulance-chasing lawyers and his neighbors on the co-op
board - he finds he's no match.

The Wolfe novel goes inside the characters' minds and lifestyles, showing how
they think and what they value. The movie sees mostly the exteriors, and
although it is narrated by one of the characters - Peter Fallow, the journalist,
played by Bruce Willis - he provides few insights and little verbal grace,
serving mostly just to hurry the story along. And yet it is enough of a story, and
the actors are colorful enough in their different ways, that "The Bonfire of the
Vanities" is an entertaining film, even if it misses the droll qualities of the book.

Tom Hanks stars as Sherman McCoy, but is more acted upon than acting in
this movie. He has two typical expressions here: crafty cunning, and disbelief
shading into horror. He is never really developed as a character we feel we
know, and he seems to inhabit his lifestyle rather than possess it. He generates
no sympathy - but then he isn't supposed to. Much more interesting is Melanie
Griffith, as Maria, his sexy mistress, who is utterly carnal, self-serving and
shameless.

The weakest character in the movie is Fallow, the journalist. He is supposed to
be a drunk and so the movie opens with him waving a bottle as he emerges
from a limousine. But the movie makes no attempt to turn him into an
interesting character with a personality - he doesn't have the moxie or the
smarts to be the kind of reporter he's representing. He just mopes about,
sighing and shrugging and raising his eyebrows. The Fallow created by Wolfe
in the book was a shameless, free-loading con artist who uses the McCoy
story as a ploy to keep his job.

Other important characters are glimpsed as if at a distance. It helps to have
read the book to understand the motives of the white lawyer who suddenly
materializes at the side of the victim's grieving mother. And without having read
the book, it is impossible to know the true motives of the two black youths
who materialize in the shadows of the expressway and strike terror into the
hearts of Sherman and Maria; they are played simply as menacing symbols.
De Palma misses a bet, too, with the character of the black minister and
community leader - obviously inspired by Al Sharpton - by