It used to be that when actors tried their hand at directing, the movies that resulted were glorified actors’ showcases, driven by performance but scrappy around the edges. These days, though, even an actor who makes a low-budget independent feature will often use it to try to show off the intuitive reach and power of his filmmaking chops.
“Bayou Caviar,” directed and co-written by its star, Cuba Gooding Jr., is a sunlit New Orleans noir built around the grubby sleazy hook of a surreptitiously shot sex tape in which one of the on-camera participants is a 16-year-old girl. It’s also a character study built around the battle-weariness of Gooding’s Rodney Jones, a former boxing champion whose rise and fall is meant to incarnate all the ways the world conspires to keep a black man down. (The movie ends with Rodney making a highly symbolic fist.) The film is also a meditation on loyalty, an inquiry into the changing nature of fame in the age of TMZ, and a portrait of assorted interlocking sectors of the New Orleans community. Whatever works, or doesn’t, about “Bayou Caviar,” you can’t accuse the film of lacking ambition.
But maybe it has too much ambition. Gooding, directing his first feature, brings the movie a quality that any good noir needs: an icy amorality. It’s there in the pulpy relish of the scenes with Richard Dreyfuss as Uri, a Russian Jewish gangster who’s looking to keep his favorite lawyer on the payroll and decides to find (or plant) dirt on the lawyer’s son (Gregg Bello), a fuddy-duddy pillar of the local Orthodox Jewish community. It’s there in the heartless cunning with which Rodney, who works as a bouncer at Uri’s nightclub, takes on this assignment, cozying up to the sensually dazed teenage Kat (Lia Marie Johnson) and convincing her that if she agrees to join in an illicit sex tape, it will be her ticket to fame.
It’s there in the way that Nic (Famke Janssen), a cynical goth photographer, goes along with this scheme (she’s the sex-tape videographer hiding in the closet). And it’s there in the movie’s title, which sounds like an unappetizing dish at Commander’s Palace — but is, in fact, even less appetizing Mob slang for a way of disposing of dead bodies by cutting them into parts and feeding them to alligators.
What the movie needed is sleekness, visual mood, and pleasurable surprise, not to mention a more tightly plotted script. You can’t say “Bayou Caviar” doesn’t have twists, but it has the wrong ones. Once it’s known that the sex tape exists, everyone in the movie tries to get their paws on it, which results in awkward scenes like one in which Kat’s burly stepfather wanders into Nic’s apartment and just happens to see the tape playing on her computer. And though Gooding’s performance has striking moments in which we see what a manipulative mask Rodney knows how to put on, as a filmmaker he doesn’t push the bad behavior far enough. The sex tape turns out to be his fulcrum for a lecture on how we’re losing our values. A movie like this one should reflect that, but it can’t be so busy saying it.