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Outsider, The (2005)
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by Robert Flaxman

"Sex, possible lies, and independent filmmaking."
4 stars

James Toback is often accused of being a self-indulgent filmmaker, in that most of the movies he makes feature characters and themes that echo aspects of his own life. To this one has to say, there are directors who donít? Nicholas Jareckiís documentary The Outsider proves a couple of things about Toback as a director and a person: first, that he and the people around him seem almost impossibly puffed up and pretentious, and second, that somehow all that behavior almost feels deserved.

A 1966 graduate of Harvard, Toback apparently has the reputation for being one of the smartest directors around. Robert Downey Jr., who has appeared in three Toback films, comments during The Outsider that he would be willing to do pretty much any film Toback wanted without even seeing a script. Most people probably donít know about this reputation, because most people probably donít know who Toback is. The highest-profile thing heís ever done is 1991ís Bugsy, and he only wrote that (but received an Oscar nod). Aside from that, his most recent films have gained notice in the more mainstream film press largely for their controversial natures: the sexual exploits of Two Girls and a Guy and When Will I Be Loved, and the racial issues focused on by Black and White.

The question, as it always is with smaller-time directors, is this: should Toback be better known than he is? Watching The Outsider, this seems like a ridiculous question. Toback hangs out with Mike Tyson and the Wu-Tang Clan; he knows Jim Brown and Woody Allen. Various celebrities profess how great he is as a director. Though Jarecki does not seem to have intended such a puff piece, it comes across like that at times because so few of his interview subjects do anything but fawn over the man theyíre discussing. At certain points, the eyes begin an involuntary roll.

Amazingly, though, the points made are good enough that the eyes stop rolling and the head starts nodding. Allen describes how personal films are never going to have much of an audience; Roger Ebert explains how some of the greatest directors ever have been seriously self-indulgent; Tobackís own way of working with people Ė actors in general, but he frequently employs non-actors to play parts, such as Tyson Ė seems to be what one would want out of a director. Toback is a gifted writer who nonetheless allows free improvisation on the set, sometimes letting entire scenes evolve exclusively out of what the actors want to do. How anyone can do this and still get a film shot in less than two weeks is baffling, yet Toback appears to manage it.

While Toback and friends present most of the arguments, itís Jarecki feeding them the questions. His splicing of footage from the set of When Will I Be Loved with other Toback films and the various interviews is pretty seamless; while this is not one of those documentaries with a very strong narrative drive, neither does it ever really meander. It gives a nice glimpse of what seat-of-the-pants filmmaking looks like, though a little more in that department would have been appreciated, but its main interest appears to lie in convincing the viewer that James Toback is a filmmaker worth caring about, something it accomplishes. (Unfortunately, given the already minimal audience for Tobackís films, one suspects Jarecki will find himself mostly preaching to the choir.)

Though the film deals with most aspects of Tobackís life in one form or another, the man himself remains something of an enigma. Many of his most notorious features are merely hinted at, rather than being on display. Ultimately, one must take Toback at his word, lest we assume he is a master yarn-spinner, but for all his supposedly autobiographical work, he remains aloof and unknowable as anything but a person who directs films. His self-reflecting moments in those films, as used here, echo the home videos shot by the Friedman family in Jareckiís brother Andrewís 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans Ė though we can see everything in front of our eyes, we know that the screen can lie. Events can be made up, staged for our benefit; itís impossible to tell how deep characters go. In a way, we see both everything and nothing.

So it is with Toback here. Jarecki was granted insider access to the Loved set and talked frequently with the director himself, but the man he is able to present is still something of a mystery. Maybe he does just have the greatest stories ever, or maybe heís a very gifted storyteller, real or fake. Certainly this seems to be the case with his films. But is it all a front in real life? Was he really a big time ladiesí man in the 1970s? Was he up to his eyeballs in gambling debt? Is it true how great a guy he is?

By letting these questions mostly fall unanswered, Jarecki avoids overpraising his subject. Instead, he lets the subject overpraise himself. At first, one assumes Jarecki agrees if heís letting Toback and friends go on like this, but really heís just doing his job as a documentarian. How someone tries to present himself and how he actually presents to others are two different things, and Jarecki knows it. By staying out of the fray, he lets Toback say whatever Toback wants to say, leaving the audience to decide for themselves whether they think Toback is a smart guy or a blowhard Ė and at different times, he comes off as both.

In the end, the only sure thing seems to be that Toback is a director worth noticing. Whether or not his films are genuinely autobiographical is ultimately irrelevant to their quality, after all. Despite the descriptions of his life, what is most convincing about Toback is his conviction on what the right way to make a film is. He makes films without compromising his sense of artistic integrity and seems to take a lot of joy in doing so.

Thatís all we really get to know, but Jarecki has no problem with it. Heís just trying to raise interest in a director, and he does it well. When all is said and done, it doesnít matter whether Toback is a sinner or not, but Jarecki does just enough that we donít think heís a saint.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12172&reviewer=385
originally posted: 05/04/05 19:01:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2005 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/21/08 Shaun Wallner This movie is crap and looks to be not all that popular 1 stars
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