To enjoy Seduced and Abandoned, you’ll have to be able to push a lumbering, hypocritical white elephant out the nearest door. The film, which director James Toback correctly claims is neither a documentary nor a conventional fictional feature, follows the legendary filmmaker, screenwriter, lapsed Ivey Leaguer, and all-around raconteur as he teams up with Alec Baldwin in an attempt to net funding to the tune of twentysomething million dollars so he can mount a new version of Last Tango in Paris that’s set in contemporary Iraq. As Toback allows us to understand it, Baldwin and actress Neve Campbell would play disillusioned operatives of some kind who try to process their post-war emotional desolation and malaise via a prolonged exploratory fuck-fest. To attain theoretical backing for this self-consciously difficult project, Toback and Baldwin packed up and headed out to the Cannes Film Festival, interviewing a variety of other legends about the draw of making movies as their pitch is predictably shot down by big-honcho billionaires who’d rather produce a formulaic global sensation that can guarantee them a return on their investment.
Toback’s film intends to illustrate the assertion that a mid-range American drama, even with a relatively prominent star like Baldwin, is nearly impossible to produce in this extreme age of either the mammoth blockbuster or the micro-budgeted indie. The problem with Seduced and Abandoned is that it’s difficult to take two rich, privileged white men, one of whom is a prominent Capital One spokesman when he isn’t fashionably parroting lefty ideals in his spare time, seriously as they stomp around a Cannes paradise complaining of everyone’s refusal to fund their project when they themselves could probably afford to put their money where their respective mouths are. Toback and Baldwin routinely scoff at being only able to raise $5 million for their pet project: Do they know how many talented filmmakers would kill for that kind of budget? Or for the ability to get in the same room with the people with whom Toback routinely chit-chats?
Luckily, it quickly becomes apparent that you’re not meant to take Toback’s attempts to mount his political sex film (which probably isn’t real anyway) very seriously, because, as usual, he’s clearly most interested in throwing a party with all his A-lister friends. Seduced and Abandoned reminds us that Toback’s films, particularly the fictional features, are often simultaneously liberated and marred by a pronounced lack of discipline on the part of their maker. You sense the better films that are eluding the director while recognizing the inspired isolated moments that probably couldn’t have been possible in any other context, such as the electric encounter between Mike Tyson and Robert Downey Jr. in Black and White. Toback’s egocentric urge to continually assume the role of the debauched, connected Hollywood survivor also empowers him in another medium: He’s an uneven director, yes, but a frequently brilliant interviewer.
Seduced and Abandoned features a laundry list of prominent names in world cinema, among them Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Bérénice Bejo, Diane Kruger, James Caan, and Ryan Gosling, and Toback manages to coax almost all of them into affording us a glimpse of the personal textures that are hidden beneath the usual self-congratulatory anecdotal PR bullshit. The vulnerability that Scorsese briefly conveys might be most jarring of all, because many of us have seen him speak so often publicly as to feel as if we “know” him, an obvious myth that Toback casually exposes. A throwaway comment of Scorsese’s that claims that all of his films are about brothers protecting one another, and so they’re all just one film, is damn near revelatory in its simplicity. This kind of moment, and there’s a similarly poignant encounter with Coppola, recalls the piercing insights that Toback got out of Mike Tyson in Tyson (the director’s masterpiece) and is a reminder of why Toback’s frequent gasbaggery is often forgivable. Underneath his party-boy hubris beats the heart of an occasionally major artist.