NEW YORK — THE most important theme to emerge in movies of the past year is a new paranoia about American institutions. ``The Bonfire of the Vanities'' joins ``Presumed Innocent'' and ``Pacific Heights'' in focusing on people who are plagued and tormented by the very institutions we're supposed to rely on for help and support - particularly the press, the police, and the whole criminal-justice system. ``Presumed Innocent'' gave this trend high visibility - first as a reasonably readable novel by Scott Turow, then as a Hollywoodized drama with Harrison Ford as an assistant district attorney who's accused of murder and ensnared in the legal system he always thought was on his side. Much of the story's tension comes from a blurring of boundaries between private activity and public exposure - raising the question of where such boundaries should be drawn in today's complex and highly technological society.
``Pacific Heights'' also blurs the line between personal and social domains. Its heroes, a young couple, rent part of their house to a stranger who turns out to be dangerously psychotic. Again the trouble starts when private activity (owning a home) shades into the public world - and again the police, the courts, and the law work against the ``good guys.''
``The Bonfire of the Vanities'' picks up a similar theme. Based on a 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe, the new Brian De Palma film centers on Sherman McCoy, a man whose life seems charmed - he's rich, clever, respected by his peers, and smug enough to call himself a ``master of the universe'' in his private thoughts. Among his many acquisitions are a Mercedes automobile and a mistress named Maria, and one night they all get lost in the Bronx, a neighborhood that's barely acknowledged (much less visited) by respectable Manhattan white folks.
A blocked roadway leads to an ambiguous encounter with two black men, a panic-stricken getaway with Maria at the wheel, and a little noise (``thok'') that may be the Mercedes running over one of the strangers. This brief incident grows into a long brouhaha, thanks to an ambitious white D.A. who needs Park Avenue types to prosecute; a manipulative black preacher who needs a bandwagon to jump on; a 10th-rate tabloid journalist who needs a story to make headlines; plus a number of other self-involved characters with axes to grind, apples to polish, and fortunes to seek.
IN terms of story, characters, and theme, ``The Bonfire of the Vanities'' is a quintessential fable of '80s-style excess and egotism. It's also the creation of an author (Mr. Wolfe, writing his first novel) who seems as arrogant and supercilious, in his way, as Sherman and his Wall Street crowd. Like every Wolfe book I've read, this one is often incisive and hilarious - yet consistently marred by the author's sense of lofty disdain toward all the poor, foolish creatures he's condescending to write about.
Such condescension is a dubious quality at best, and it's especially dangerous in ``Bonfire,'' since the story is charged with racial and sexual overtones that would be sensitive even if handled with tact and care. It's true that Wolfe dishes out the same scornful treatment to just about everyone in the tale, regardless of sex or color. But it's also true that the underprivileged, marginalized, and disenfranchised suffer most from his withering gaze - because they're getting the short end of society's stick in real life, as well, and Wolfe can't be bothered to take this into account.
``The Bonfire of the Vanities'' runs into even more trouble on the screen than on the page, because the filmmakers have made questionable decisions in an effort to tone the story down. They've opted for a wide-angle camera style and broad performances that undercut the novel's sense of hard-hitting urban reality. They've arbitrarily changed a key character's ethnicity from Jewish to African-American, evidently hoping to dull the story's provocative edge, and they've given him a major speech - full of platitudes about decency and cooperation - that's so banal it's hard to listen to, especially since it comes at what should be the climax of the movie.
Even as they've smoothed the novel's rough edges, moreover, the filmmakers have tried to cram a maximum number of its incidents into about two hours of screen time. This gives the picture a hectic pace that adds to its feeling of weightlessness and unreality. Poor casting, especially in the major roles played by Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith, doesn't help.
``Bonfire'' has some merits. There are touches of technical wizardry, for instance, as when director De Palma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond execute a brilliantly long take at the beginning, tossing it off (like Orson Welles in ``Touch of Evil'') behind the opening credits. But the movie fails at too many levels to be called anything but a major disappointment.
And that's a pity, since its theme of personal vs. social priorities is an important one that American movies have just begun to explore. I hope filmmakers keep digging into it, using source material as vigorous as Wolfe's boisterous novel - but a lot less arrogant and condescending, too.