Nicholas Jarecki’s “The Outsider” is a portrait of maverick filmmaker James Toback, whose public persona would seem to be ripe for a scandalous, scab-ripping expose with hysterical voiceover and a general nosedive into depravity. Instead, Jarecki has produced more of a Friar’s Club roast than a document, with the negative aspects of the subject made funny, and the positive inflated. Toback should be very happy with this panegyric, which will otherwise be of interest mostly to those who know Toback and love him.
A filmmaker more about moments than sustained energy or interest, Toback’s best work includes his first film “Fingers,” “The Pick-Up Artist” (said to be largely autobiographical) and the screenplay to “Bugsy.” Toback discusses his large appetites, but no one else really does — the testimony of such luminaries as Woody Allen, Norman Mailer and his good friend Robert Downey Jr. is meant to bolster Toback’s image, as he works on “When Will I Be Loved” — the film starring Neve Campbell that Toback was given $2 million, and three weeks, to finish. That he does is easily the most amazing thing in the film.
Downey affectionately calls Toback “a genius and a retard.” Actress Bijou Philips confidently testifies Toback is “one of the greatest directors of all time. … Everybody knows that.” Others are more circumspect.
Asked about Toback’s reputed penchant for self-indulgence, critic Roger Ebert says: “Bergman is self-indulgent! Fellini is the most self-indulgent of directors! Every great director is self-indulgent.” But he stops well short of calling Toback a great director.
Jarecki certainly thinks his subject deserves such an accolade, and he’s made a great-looking film to make his case, one that is edited gracefully and briskly — and leaves the heady aftertaste of birthday cake.