Title: Seduced and Abandoned
Director: James Toback
Starring: Alec Baldwin, James Toback, Martin Scorsese, Ryan Gosling, Roman Polanski, Jessica Chastain, James Caan, Diane Kruger, Francis Ford Coppola, Diabo Cody, Neve Campbell, Brett Ratner
For a week-and-a-half last year, writer-director James Toback and Alec Baldwin glad-handed their way through the Cannes Film Festival, trying to secure financing for a proposed film — a Middle Eastern-set political/erotic thriller they envisioned as a type of spiritual cousin of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris.” “Seduced and Abandoned,” then, premiering on HBO tonight and playing deep into the next month on its affiliated channels, is their travelogue-cum-pitch-video, wherein they talk high-minded cinema with fellow creatives while facing the cold realities of film financing while trying to shake down billionaires for funding. An entirely odd but nonetheless endearing sort of valentine to the madness of movies in general and the dizzying swirl of Cannes much more specifically, “Seduced and Abandoned” may be niche product for cinephiles, but it captures the tug-of-war between art and commerce in a unique and engaging fashion.
Baldwin, on the precipice of cycling out of “30 Rock” at the time of filming, is candid about his impending return to the film world, and the re-awakened creative fire it seems to have lit in him. He and Toback share a particular fascination with and admiration for “Last Tango in Paris,” and so their chat with Bertolucci (who reveals that Brando didn’t speak to him for five years after making the movie, possibly because he pulled “so much personal truth” out of him, the filmmaker opines) has an agreeable quality that would be at home on a Criterion DVD or Blu-ray release.
That’s only part of “Seduced and Abandoned,” however. Toback and Baldwin are quite serious about their project, even if the notion of a mid-50s Baldwin as the focal point of a torrid love triangle speaks to occupational metaphors of reclaimed virility that neither the star nor filmmaker seems to want to discuss. They envision the film set in Tikrit, at the height of the Iraq War’s bumblefuckery, and set out to procure a budget of $20-25 million. This eventually gets whittled down, to $15-20 million, but a variety of bundlers each tell the pair that about $5 million is the realistic ceiling for a movie of this sort with Baldwin attached. (Neve Campbell is also on board for one of the female leads, though folks point out that she’s not “worth” anything in foreign presales.)
Toback (“Harvard Man,” “Black and White,” “Tyson”) is both an iconoclast and a man of not insignificant ego and appetites, and so “Seduced and Abandoned” flirts heartily with pretension almost from the get-go. What helps most hold that judgment at bay — in addition to some savvy, subtle editing work by Toback, who overlays ruminative banter between he and Baldwin with the interstitial footage that bridges their various interviews and meetings — is the fact that the movie just honestly delivers great anecdotes, from a diverse roster of interviewees that includes Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ryan Gosling, Jessica Chastain, Diablo Cody, James Caan, Roman Polanski and more.
Coppola, a somewhat surprising but quite reasonable critic of Cannes, trips into recounting throwing away all his Oscars while discussing not really having an ending for his latest film, “Twixt.” Talking shop, Gosling gripes good-naturedly about close-ups, wide shots and the like before giving “Blue Valentine” director Derek Cianfrance props; later, he shares an amazing story about experiencing some crazy airline turbulence. Critic Todd McCarthy, meanwhile, coughs up a story about Robert Altman haranguing Pauline Kael as a cunt, after Shelley Duvall was awarded Best Actress for “3 Women” at the 1977 festival, but Altman awarded no individual citation.
As a movie itself, “Seduced and Abandoned” has a scattershot focus, as well as no small bit of ego-stoking. (Toback makes sure to include several scenes of Scorsese complimenting him.) But it works, in its own jumbled way, because in celebrating Cannes and the creative drive, writ large (“Making movies brings structure to the chaos of my life,” says Toback), behind all the attendant wheeling and dealing and compromise-weighing, it reminds viewers that actors, writers and directors have hopes and desires just like everyone else.
NOTE: Check your local listings for “Seduced and Abandoned” showtimes on HBO and its affiliated sister networks.
Written by: Brent Simon