For anyone who’s ever felt a bit bemused by the continuing career of director/writer/sometime-actor James Toback, "The Outsider" will be an illumination. Toback, whose finest hour was when his screenplay for "Bugsy" was nominated for an Oscar in 1992, feverishly churns out a new film every few years, each a variation on the same themes. Only his first, 1978’s "Fingers," which starred Harvey Keitel and football Hall of Famer Jim Brown, and which was remade as last year’s "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," has earned any kind of consistent critical regard. The Harvard-educated Toback is at least as famous for his one-time appetites for sex, drugs, and gambling (along with his outsized personality) as he is for his filmmaking, which makes him a prime subject for a documentary.
"The Outsider," the debut film from Nicholas Jarecki, follows Toback through the filming of 2004’s "When Will I Be Loved," interspersing that footage with interviews of fondly disposed Toback acquaintances, including Woody Allen, Brett Ratner, Roger Ebert and Norman Mailer. We get a look at Toback’s free-form filmmaking technique, which rests heavily on improvised scenes, use of a Steadicam and occasional cameos from his famous friends: Bridget Hall, Lori Singer, Damon Dash and Mike Tyson (who also had a role in "Black and White") all make appearances.
Toback is a fiercesome spinner of his own personal mythology â€” one character observes that he has "an amicable hustler’s energy about him," and indeed, he has a near-miraculous gift of gab, pulling out a combination of personal philosophies, Dostoevsky references, raunchy anecdotes from the 70s and gossip to exercise a soothing control over and inspire total confidence in all those involved in what should have been a ridiculous project: shooting a feature-length film, without a script, in 12 days. Toback’s self-regard is staggering, but also compelling: you couldn’t help but wish his films were as good as he believes they are. There’s something charming in the way he attempts to will the world around him to be as he wishes â€” in one scene, he and Mike Tyson both address the camera and attempt to talk over each other: Toback rambles on and on about how much he enjoys casting Tyson because he’s so articulate, while beside him Tyson confides about all of the "sexual injuendos" Toback’s always trying to get him to say. Having wrapped his film, Toback discusses the bidding war between distributors he’s sure is imminent, which, as time passes, becomes simply finding a distributor, period â€” there are downsides to buying into your own bullshit after all.
Aside from some jarring and odd soundtrack choices, Jarecki’s direction is unobtrusive, making for an affectionate if slender film that never deeper or asks any difficult questions, even when we wish it did â€” particularly regarding the $2 million offered to Toback by British investors at the beginning of the film, apparently unsolicited and out of the blue. "Outsider" being a relative term, always.
"The Outsider" opens in the New York on June 16.
+ "The Outsider" (Official site)