James Toback's films are provocative, raw and often too stuffed with ideas to function properly. But when the writer/director truly connects with his material -- his breakout 1978 effort Fingers, 1987's The Pick-Up Artist or a personal favorite, 1997's Two Girls and a Guy -- he achieves a kind of penetrating power that leaves a considerable impression. Outside of cinema, the erudite raconteur has lived quite the life, which is, in part, a focus of Nicholas Jarecki's filmmaking debut The Outsider.
Unfolding along a parallel track in The Outsider is the making of Toback's latest film, When Will I Be Loved, starring Neve Campbell. The very genesis of the project -- a two million dollar budget contingent upon Toback's completing the film in 12 days, with no distribution deal or script in place -- reveals the filmmaker's ability to work without a net. (Although, given the film's ultimately indifferent critical reception, one might suggest that Toback needs a few more parameters in place.) Jarecki loosely follows filming, editing and the fight to get a distributor, while also chatting with a number of Toback's associates and co-workers. The cumulative impact of the film is something close to hagiography, since those who know the filmmaker are eager to discuss his art and adventures, relatively few -- except perhaps Robert Downey, Jr. -- frankly talk about the man's predilections and personal problems.
Yet The Outsider can be intermittently fascinating, since Toback is a natural storyteller and seems to have quite easily inhabited the outsized persona he's created for himself. As Sony Pictures' John Calley puts it, midway through the film, "I think the role of the outsider is one Jim plays with great comfort." Jarecki interviews what seems to a great cross-section of Toback's friends, including Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Mike Tyson, Brett Ratner, Harvey Keitel, Brooke Shields, Jim Brown and Bijou Phillips. He proves to be an adept, probing interviewer, eliciting some fascinating and funny insights from the assembled participants. At a brisk 83 minutes, The Outsider seems to end just as it gets going, but Jarecki sets himself the goal of tracing the production arc of When Will I Be Loved and sticks to it.
There are plenty of button-pushing scenes in The Outsider, most of which stem from the filmmaker's gritty catalog, so the uninitiated might be a bit disquieted (particularly by the opening montage). But those who appreciate and seek out Toback's singularly gripping works will delight in Jarecki's documentary, which does an admirable job of attempting to peel back the layers of a man equally clothed in self-made myth and actual, definable achievements. The Outsider is a man of intellect and charm, one whose films are often criminally overlooked. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Jarecki's documentary is that it will inspire those unfamiliar with Toback's work to seek it out.
Offered up in 1.33:1 fullscreen, The Outsider looks a bit rough at times, owing to its being shot on digital video. The level of detail fluctuates a bit -- this doc is very much a fly on the wall-type production -- although the copious clips from Toback's previous films look very solid (each clip is presented in its appropriate aspect ratio, letterboxed within the fullscreen frame). A hit-and-miss visual representation, but overall, it's watchable.
The film, primarily driven by dialogue and the odd bit of score, doesn't need much in the way of a soundtrack, so the included Dolby 2.0 stereo track gets the job done just fine.
A pair of commentary tracks are included; Jarecki sits for one, discussing his roots and the project's genesis, while the second one features Toback, who kicks things off by saying "It's an odd, exciting, disconcerting experience to have a movie made about one's self." Both are great listens. Eighteen deleted/extended scenes (presented in fullscreen) are playable separately or all together for an aggregate of one hour, 39 minutes -- longer than the film's run time. A theatrical trailer for The Outsider completes the disc.
James Toback's films are provocative, raw and often too stuffed with ideas to function properly. But when the writer/director truly connects with his material -- his breakout 1978 effort Fingers, 1987's The Pick-Up Artist or a personal favorite, 1997's Two Girls and a Guy -- he achieves a kind of penetrating power that leaves a considerable impression. Outside of cinema, the erudite raconteur has lived quite the life, which is, in part, a focus of Nicholas Jarecki's filmmaking debut The Outsider. Recommended.