It is mid-March and the time of the California Primaries when the incumbent Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) should be fired up to fight for his re-election. However, that Friday before the weekend he sits in his office weeping, not having slept or eaten for three days, and enduring some kind of breakdown. After taking out a ten million dollar life insurance policy to be paid to his daughter, he calls an influential gangster boss to his office and tells him he wants someone killed over the next couple of days - Bulworth himself. Satisfied that he will die soon, he then allows himself whisked away by his chief assistant (Oliver Platt) to a church in South Central where he will give a speech, but with nothing to lose, Bulworth realises he can say anything he pleases...
This left-leaning political satire was scripted by Jeremy Pikser and the director, that well known Hollywood liberal Warren Beatty. It's a highly unusual film for Hollywood to produce, and it's undoubtedly the result of star power that it was ever made in the first place, with its embracing of a socialist point of view and its frequent pauses for political opinions, not just on the part of its main character. Taking the approach that any politician who really told it like it was would stir up unimaginable controversy, and even drum up unheard of support, Beatty finds his sympathies lie with the poor, specifically the disadvantaged members of the African-American community, who he sees as not having anyone effectively representing them.
This could be seen as well meaning, as it probably is, but has a danger of coming across as patronising as well. Beatty gets around this by having Bulworth make a fool of himself while still hitting home the socialist message, resulting in an off kilter experience on the whole. When he arrives at the church, he starts reading out a cliché ridden speech, then stops and asks for questions, which he gets; it's the answers he gives that surprise the congregation, as he tells them they are too poor to be of any influence so their votes are not important, and any attempt to improve their quality of life will be quietly forgotten about by Democrats and Republicans alike in favour of their business interests once either are in power.
Revelling in his new found freedom, Bulworth spots a pretty face in the crowd, Nina (Halle Berry) and sets out to get acquainted, as his wife (Christine Baranski) despises him and is carrying on an affair anyway. After a meeting with Hollywood execs that goes badly when he cheerfully accuses the Jewish studio bosses of being paranoid and their product of being worthless, it's straight to where he wants to go: a nightclub where he can get to know Nina better. This is also where he discovers a love of rap, which he tries out at every opportunity, which is funny in a cringeful kind of way, as is Bulworth's efforts to fit in with the black patrons (they think he's George Hamilton).
However, where his political raps provide the conscience of the film, even being interviewed on television entirely in rhyme, Bulworth's antics tend to work against the seriousness of intent. After enjoying himself so much that he doesn't want to be assassinated (Beatty is obviously enjoying himself too), and jumping at every loud bang, he tries to call off the hit, only to be foiled when the gang boss keels over with a heart attack. Now he has something to live for as his rants have made him a hero with the disenfranchised (over just one weekend - obviously news travels fast) and a romance seems to be blossoming between the intelligent but suspicious Nina and Bulworth (we can see the hand of the director in that too).
There are, of course, complications, as the senator hides out at Nina's home with her family and gets close to the reality of poverty where the only way to get ahead is to turn to crime, and meets a gang leader (Don Cheadle) who makes no secret of the advantages breaking the law has offered him. And meanwhile, Bulworth's campaign leaders are tying themsleves in knots to adapt their strategy to their leader's eccentricity. As arresting as the film is, you wonder why Beatty had to make his lead character and mouthpiece go crazy before he started to criticise big business and hypocritical politics, and the story takes on a conspiratorial twist by the end. It's as if he thought moviegoers wouldn't want to see a soberly serious political film, and didn't quite have the courage to make it - but then, would many go and see a biopic of Ralph Nader? Music by Ennio Morricone.