May 20, 1998 at 12:00 am

Flash back to the summer of 1992. President Bill Clinton smarts from an apparent defeat in his much-publicized war of words with activist and Public Enemy-affiliate Sister Souljah. Al Gore expresses to the media his distaste over Ice-T's song with the band Body Count, "Cop Killer." For the first time ever in American history, it seems that this republic's leaders will possibly give concessions to the figureheads of an African-American subculture, hip hop.

This is the cultural motivation behind a film like Warren Beatty's satirical comeback, Bulworth. The liberal-slanted writer-director-actor delves into issues of race and class in the descent of Jay Bulworth, a U.S. senator in the midst of a nervous breakdown. It is Jay's final campaign weekend, and he hasn't slept or eaten in several days. Beatty as Bulworth opens the film watching old tapes of his own speeches, crying hysterically, then hiring a hit man to assassinate himself in the days to come.

With his combination of insomnia and death wish pending, Jay stumbles upon a weird capacity to tell the truth at public appearances. His first stop, that paragon of African-American piety, the black church, is where his new speaking style debuts with explosive effect. There Jay also comes across many a white liberal's dream, Halle Berry as hip-hop girl Nina. Bulworth falls for Nina, and continues to offend various constituents by tweaking their noses and telling the truth. His day culminates in a trip to a nightclub with the homegirls where he takes a plunge into hip-hop culture and is transformed.

With a flimsy plotline, Bulworth revises that old folk tale of the white man going into the African-American village a soulless hack and coming out renewed by what he finds there. Of course, this rebirth is galvanized by Bulworth's (or Beatty's) desire for Berry's character. The intrusions of the hit man's threat hardly create any palpable tension.

With a painfully outdated set of assumptions, Beatty drags us through this safari, and we can hardly be awed when Bulworth starts to rap at his conferences. Reports that Berry was kept in the dark as to the film's plot developments seem incongruous in light of its hackneyed structure. So one is left to strain for elements that might not patronize. But not even the clever placements of rap songs over key scenes can save Bulworth from looming, fundamental flaws.

No bones about it: This is a big mistake from start to finish. The film isn't very funny, and mostly serves as a lampoon of the very subject Beatty tries so hard to salvage: whiteness. Its premise appears more meaningful to the director himself; Beatty envisions his own demise. Bulworth makes it a forgone conclusion.

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