Spirited, highly amusing and endearingly shambolic, James Toback’s “Seduced and Abandoned” seeks to represent an “uncategorizable” work about film, money, Cannes and death, roughly in that order. In other words, it’s basically a documentary that tracks the writer-helmer himself and co-conspirator Alec Baldwin as they schlep around the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and beyond, trying to hustle up coin for a loose remake of “Last Tango in Paris,” and meeting other filmmakers, financiers, studio execs, and stars along the way. Ultimately, the pic offers a timely, melancholy-tinged tribute to those fighting quixotically to make enduring, ambitious art rather than revenue for revenue’s sake.
Already acquired by HBO for North American broadcast, the pic could have dainty niche-theatrical legs offshore similar to those of “Side by Side.” Where Chris Kenneally’s recent docu about the digital-vs.-film debate was anchored by Keanu Reeves, “Seduced and Abandoned” has two charismatic frontmen in Toback and Baldwin, jointly posing the questions and forming an affable, wisecracking double act.
Meanwhile, impressive access to major names from in front of and behind the camera will entice cinephile audiences everywhere. At the very least, hardcore Baldwin fans who might only know him for “30 Rock” may take a peek, while friends, acquaintances and colleagues of some of the many interviewed (including past and present Variety critics Todd McCarthy and Scott Foundas, respectively) will also apply. Programming the film for Cannes’ 2013 edition was surely a no-brainer for festival topper Thierry Fremaux (also interviewed here), although paradoxically, the pic’s fulsome tribute to the festival, bordering on the sycophantic at times, might limit its mileage at other sprocket operas.
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The opening scenes introduce Alec Baldwin and Toback having a lively discussion, both onstage at Lincoln Center and in private, about “Last Tango in Paris,” as excerpts from Bernardo Bertolucci’s immortal 1972 film are shown via split-screen (clearly one of Toback’s favorite devices, as he showed in his 2008 docu “Tyson”). Baldwin and Toback are hoping to remake “Tango” with Baldwin playing the Marlon Brando part and Toback regular Neve Campbell in the Maria Schneider role, but set in Iraq during the 2000s.
So off they head to Cannes, seemingly without a script, but with plenty of chutzpah and a camera crew to film them taking meetings with various sales agents and money men (including Mark Damon, Avi Lerner, Thorsten Schumacher, Ashok Amritraj, and Jeremy Thomas) who gamely shoot straight about what sort of budget they think the project warrants. Toback and Baldwin want at least $15 million, but no one seems to think the cast’s worth more than $4 million or $5 million.
In a wryly played moment that suggests some segments were not entirely unrehearsed, Toback swiftly offers to demote Campbell in favor of a hotter femme thesp, despite having sworn undying devotion to her in an earlier scene. Cue interviews with Diane Kruger (who tells them to beef up their pitch), Jessica Chastain and a delightfully frank Ryan Gosling, who limns the misery of casting sessions when one is still an undiscovered actor.
Elsewhere, various filmmakers including Bertolucci himself, Francis Ford Coppola, James Caan and Martin Scorsese, and execs Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mike Medavoy and Ron Meyer, share scattered reflections on their own careers and the industry, the uneasy alliance between the Cannes festival and the market attached to it, and the way in which making films, in Baldwin’s words, is like having a terrible lover who, per the title, seduces and abandons you over and over again.
Editorial sleight of hand, credited to Aaron Yanes, just about manages to hold all these highly disparate musings together and help the ideas resonate against each other as Toback and Baldwin keep trying to swim upstream, only to encounter rejection after rejection. No wonder their thoughts turn to the mortality of flesh and the inviolate nature of art, prompted by a killer quote from Norman Mailer about how “film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long.” Spurred by that notion, the film culminates in a montage of all the interviewees’ thoughts on their own mortality, ranging from Kruger’s embarrassed bafflement at being asked to Lerner’s flat statement that he’s not ready to die.
Shostakovich’s haunting Fifth Symphony, a threnody of unique potency, is nevertheless overused as background music for long stretches of the film, adding a jarring ominousness even in moments of levity. Other tech credits are cheap but cheerfully inventive.