There hasn’t been a “grumpy older dudes” vanity project like James Toback’s Seduced and Abandoned in quite some time. But whereas Evans has no regrets about being an asshole who worked hard and occasionally had to con himself to the top and his film was merely narration over pictures of his life, Toback’s HBO documentary about the pitfalls and frustrations of trying to get a passion project off the ground feels far more intimate and uncomfortable, and that’s meant as a compliment. It’s a disarming look at a pair of established Hollywood players with huge egos in an industry that has seen the almighty dollar sign replace star power and authorial intent.
Toback (Bugsy, Two Girls and a Guy, Tyson) and actor Alec Baldwin travel to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival to try and land up to $25 million for a pseudo-remake of Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexually charged Last Tango in Paris set in Iraq with the former 30 Rock star and actress Neve Campbell in the leads. Formerly a place where art and film reigned supreme, the influx of press, pundits, stars, and businessmen have turned the French Rivera every May into “a sunny place for shady people,” a place where the focus has largely shifted to financing and marketing pitches instead of advancing cinema. Toback knows the hustle well, dragging Baldwin (who has never been to Cannes before) along to meetings with various foreign investors and billionaires, only to keep getting shot down and lowballed for his vision. Along the way, the duo also interview a wide range of directors, producers, studio executives, and movie stars to talk about what the festival used to be like and how the business continually finds ways to screw over its own workers.
There’s a thick layer of bitterness to this meta-project that would be hard to swallow for anyone not already familiar with Toback and Baldwin’s sometimes cantankerous natures, but the pair do an excellent job at outlining why the industry they love so much continually finds new ways to piss them off. It’s a movie about the nature of ego made by people completely in touch with their own high opinions of their work. Baldwin is easily the more relateable, realistic, and sympathetic. He’s really just there to ensure he’s getting work now that his sitcom has ended, and he’s almost nonplussed at the fact that people now only see him as a comedic TV actor. He’s the realist to Toback’s chronically quixotic optimist. His frustrations with the business make perfect sense, and when he says about halfway through that you have to be “a selfish motherfucker” to stay on top, he might be the first person to ever utter that statement on camera and not sound like a complete asshole about.
That could be credit to Toback’s framing of everyone and making sure everything gets placed in a proper context. Just the fact that Seduced and Abandoned exists suggests that Toback simply wants to make movies as a means of getting his own emotions out. Its title, a play on a quote uttered by Baldwin equating the business to that of an on-again-off-again girlfriend, as well as Pieto Germi’s dirty minded 1964 screwball comedy, gives hint that a greater con might be in play. While Baldwin’s attempts to charm financiers seems genuine, Toback comes across as a masterful hustler in a game full of like minded hucksters. At every turn Toback seems perfectly willing to either compromise his vision ever so slightly to get a deal, while telling others who might let him have his way that the words of his pitch are intractable. He knows how to read a person, like a true shark looking for a weakness to exploit in his prey, be it appealing to either the artistic or financial pretensions of those who seem interested. Toback’s biggest problem is that the waters have simply become overfished, causing him at times to seem desperate and exasperated when one think he would have been more composed in such meetings only ten years earlier. And yet, despite his frustrations, he seems perfectly comfortable doing whatever it takes short of sexual favours to ensure he gets to make another film.
But while Toback does a fine job outlining the Hollywood Shuffle, he does a finer job with the on-camera interviews that pepper the film, lending historical and anecdotal context to the festival and the nature of the industry. Any one of these interviews could be spun out into a film of its own and still be perfectly entertaining for film buffs. Toback and Baldwin sit down in tandem with the likes of Bertolucci, Hollywood Reporter chief Todd McCarthy, Dreamworks mastermind Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Francis Ford Coppola to talk about the festival’s evolution from what it used to be into the beast it has become. The best interviews, however, come from the thoughtful and beautifully anecdotal talks with director Martin Scorsese and actor Ryan Gosling, the latter of which has never given an interview as good as this. Watching Scorsese talk with reverence about how lucky he feels and how Tennessee Williams didn’t like Taxi Driver the year the famed playwright was the head of the Cannes jury is a hoot. Gosling, on the other hand, delivers one of the best off-the-cuff speeches about the frustration of being a working actor, and his answer to Toback’s standard “Are you ready for death” question (which he asks to everyone in the film) is priceless. (Also, on a personal note, watching Toback and Baldwin have to hustle to get a lowly ten minutes to talk to Jessica Chastain kind of hits home for someone who does interviews all the time.)
There’s a moment in the film where Baldwin and Toback are at a roundtable with foreign investors who demand the film they’re pitching to have more comedy, or at the very least a submarine since it’s been far too long since anyone has seen the actor in a submersible. In that moment, Baldwin seems to not know if he wants to laugh because the guys are joking or to tell them to fuck off if they happen to be serious. That frustration and dichotomy of emotions drives Toback’s work, and while it might not appeal to many people who aren’t already enthralled by Hollywood’s transformation from a land of movie stars to a wasteland of franchise and superhero pictures, those in the know should get a huge kick out of it.