Here's the pitch: writer/director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin (30 Rock) want to team up to produce a remake of Last Tango in Paris. Baldwin will play the Marlon Brando part, Neve Campbell (Scream) will play the Maria Schneider part and the movie will be set in Iran. Baldwin and Toback are hoping to get $25 million to make the film, so they go to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in search of investors. They will film every step of the process, so that even if the film itself isn't funded, they'll at least have a potentially interesting documentary on their hands.
Seduced and Abandoned is indeed an interesting documentary; a revealing (and slightly dispiriting) snapshot of just how difficult it is to make a drama for grown-ups on a respectable budget. Baldwin and Toback meet and greet with eccentric billionaires, assorted foreign investors and creative producers, but they continually hear variations on the same story: they need bigger stars, they need more international stars, they need a more manageable location, they need more action sequences and they certainly need to find a way to work with a smaller budget. Toback wants $25 million, but every investor insists that a Baldwin star vehicle doesn't merit more than $4-5 million. The fact that almost every single person repeats this same figure must be a little peculiar for Baldwin: he has a definitive value that is widely accepted by investors everywhere.
Admittedly, I wouldn't invest $25 million in their movie, either. There's no way that anyone's remake of Last Tango in Paris makes that kind of money back, much less a remake starring Alec Baldwin (who is a fine actor, but doesn't seems like the right choice for this sort of thing). I suspect that both Baldwin and Toback knew that going in – we hear that they've already planned to call the film Seduced and Abandoned before they even get a sense of how people will receive their project, and neither seems convinced that the film is ever going to actually happen. It's fun to follow their assorted difficulties, but their proposed project eventually begins to seem like little more than a convenient lead-in to a considerably more rewarding examination of the conflict between art and business.
A number of noted filmmakers appear throughout the film to regale Toback and Baldwin with stories of their early appearances at the Cannes Film Festival and the early films that made them famous. Martin Scorsese offers some anecdotes on Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Roman Polanski talks about Knife in the Water, Bernardo Bertolucci discusses Novecento, Francis Ford Coppola reminisces about You're a Big Boy Now, etc. For a while, it seems as if the film is merely meandering in an effort to get more screentime from some cinematic icons, but after a while we begin to see a common thread: all of these movies were passion projects that were made precisely the way the directors wanted to make them.
That still happens from time to time, but Seduced and Abandoned suggests that it's much harder than it used to be. The fact that you have a vision and the perfect actors doesn't matter; the only thing that matters is whether the genre you're working in and the stars you've picked fit comfortably with the mathematical formula the investors have worked out. “I don't need to know anything about the movie; just tell me who is in it and I will tell you how much I can spend,” one investor claims. He seems to be oversimplifying for dramatic effect, but not by much.
Toback begins looking for ways to compromise. He can't make the movie for $4 million (“I'm too old for that,” he says), but maybe for $12-15 million. Maybe he can write a substantial supporting role for Ryan Gosling (who makes a good-natured appearance here). Maybe he can move Neve Campbell to a supporting role and persuade Jessica Chastain or Diane Kruger to play the lead. Maybe it doesn't have to be in Iran. Maybe they can stick a little violence in the movie. “I'm a whore!” Toback bellows, not in a fit of self-loathing but in an attempt to persuade investors that he'll do anything. He and Baldwin are not the most likable figures in the world (both demonstrate a sense of self-importance that makes them a little tiresome on occasion), but their real-life connections and experience in the movie business give the film a weight that would almost certainly be lacking if we were dealing with a talented young director and his fresh-faced star.
Toback's direction is unsubtle but captivating, weaving footage of magical cinematic moments (La Dolce Vita! Breathless! The Godfather!) in and out of scenes featuring cold-blooded investors delivering hard truths. The whole thing is underscored by a handful of Dmitri Shostakovich selections, with more playful pieces suggesting a Fellini-esque carnival of human comedy and more dramatic pieces suggesting a sweeping meditation on life, art and everything. I enjoyed the way the film flits between “inside baseball” minutiae and weighty universal questions (a montage near the film's conclusion features the ever-blunt Toback asking all of his interview subjects if they're ready for death, and many of them seem a little offended by the question). It's a for-cinephiles-only affair, I suppose, but the tone Toback sets offers just the right blend of winking satire and anguished melodrama. Plus, it has a perfect ending.
Seduced and Abandoned
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2013