Whatever else you want to say about him, James Toback knows how to get your attention. The writer/director’s new film opens with an interracial menage a trois performed in broad daylight in Central Park and observed by a passing trio of adolescent boys. Welcome to Part Two in a series of cinematic explorations of hip hop culture by rich, middle-aged white guys – Black and White. Part One, of course, was Toback pal Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, which featured the memorable line, "We’ve got to keep fucking each other until we’re all the same color." In a recent interview with Salon magazine, Toback takes credit for that line, which comes as no surprise. It’s one of the themes of his latest work, a semi-improvised take on cross-cultural pollination in contemporary New York.
But while Black and White may be thematically sound, it fails on nearly every other count – as character study, as improvisatory exercise, as technically competent filmmaking, and most of all, as believable drama. That it fails in more interesting ways than most of the other multiplex fare in this so far dismal movie year may make it worth seeing – but it’s a close call.
Featuring a cast that might as well have been assembled by John Waters – the players include Brooke Shields, Robert Downey, Jr., Marla Maples, Claudia Schiffer, Ben Stiller, Mike Tyson and members of the Wu Tang Clan – Toback’s film centers on a group of Upper West Side "wiggers" – white kids who want to be black. Bijou Phillips plays Charlie, one of the participants in the movie-opening sex act. Wu Tang’s Power is Rich Bower, the gangsta and wannabe rapper she is infatuated with. The collision of their divergent worlds is being documented by filmmaker Sam Donegan (Shields) and her husband Terry (Downey, Jr.), who happens to be gay. In a seemingly unrelated storyline that later sideswipes the main action, basketball player Dean (played by real life Knick Allan Houston) ponders whether or not to throw a game for money.
It’s not just any director who would decide to use non-actors in an improvisatory setting, so give Toback another checkmark for audacity. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned experiment produces mixed results. A scene where Terry hits on Mike Tyson at a party got a lot of pre-release publicity, but it is typical of too many of Black and White‘s big moments: it has one idea which is delivered with a jolt and then hangs there, dissipating before our eyes while the performers struggle to string it out. Tyson at least has screen presence; Allan Houston has what can only be called screen absence, and he is forced to carry too much of the burden once the plot mechanics grind into action.
That grinding begins once the Ben Stiller character is introduced. Revealing too much about him and his place in the story would be unfair. Suffice it to say that, at about the halfway point, Toback balls the movie up in his hands, tosses it, and starts over again with a bizarre and contrived murder/revenge plot. This head-scratching turn of events is further weighed down by Claudia Schiffer, playing some sort of Ayn Randian anthropologist. Schiffer’s inexplicable role can’t even be called a character; she’s more of a position paper. But then, that’s true of most of the inhabitants of this movie – they function better as mouthpieces for Toback’s various notions about cultural, racial and sexual identity than as fully-realized people. Points must also be deducted for some glaringly shoddy sound dubbing in the street scenes, where lip movement often doesn’t even come close to matching dialogue. Visually, the picture is hit and miss – some wonderfully warm and evocative New York ambiance has to compete with often murky or downright ugly close-ups.
By the end we have learned that rich white kids imitate blacks to 1) rebel against their parents; 2) try to escape themselves and the pain of adolescence; and 3) see how the other half lives for a little while, before gratefully going back to being rich and white. But we learn all this in the first third of the movie, which is the loosest, freshest, most intriguing part. This is one puzzle where the picture becomes less clear once the pieces start coming together.