I was watching Mike Tyson knock Robert Downey Jr. to the floor when the thought popped into my head, “Is this what I want from a movie?” It was a pressing question. For the past months, I’d been seeing a lot of films that were so-so but incorporated better-than-average moments–for example, the one that was now unspooling in James Toback’s Black and White. It’s a film that runs 100 minutes, and at the rate it was going, I figured I was going to enjoy about 66 of them. Could I run a review that simply said, “Two-thirds”? There had to be a better measure. So I decided Toback had done me a service when he made Downey hit the deck. If he’d accomplished nothing else by making Black and White–a loopy mix of a film, which is layered like a hip-hop master’s samples–at least he’d forced me to wonder what’s “good” in a movie.
To begin with the standard barstool reply: Who cares? A movie is good if it diverts, amuses, entertains. In root terms, that means it should turn you aside from weightier thoughts, cause you to stare like a hypnotized chicken or perhaps make you feel at home, as a good host would. I see the glimmer of an ethic in that last meaning. A film that entertains is one that invites you in; once inside, you find yourself engaged in a kind of entretien, or conversation. In that sense, a movie that meets the barstool test can be more than a pastime. It might serve a social function by making the world seem a bigger, more interlocutory place, at least for an hour or two–and who among us at The Nation would object to that?
The good news about Black and White is that its world is often open and waiting to be explored. White teenagers from a Manhattan prep school, led by skinny, squeaky-voiced Charlie (Bijou Phillips), delve into Harlem and the funkier sections of Staten Island, meanwhile trying on Negro identities for size. At the same time, the somewhat older black crew around Rich (big-baritone Power of Wu-Tang Clan) ventures uncomfortably into the territory of white-run business offices, the domains of record producers and boxing promoters. As if to add an even more explicit mode of investigation, Toback tosses into the scene a pair of documentary filmmakers from California (Brooke Shields and Downey), who bounce around Rich and Charlie in a perpetual state of gosh-gee.
So far, everyone’s innocent on some level, and everyone’s on new ground. What’s more, a fair number of these people are either playing themselves (like Tyson, who hangs around with Rich) or giving off personality like a thousand-watt bulb, as Downey does. That’s why I decided the abrupt, hilariously awkward Tyson-Downey match was at least part of what I want from a movie–and that’s why I’d describe the film’s informal, catch-it-on-the-fly aspect as good.
But there’s also such a thing as “better.” It’s a condition that Black and White does not attain, given that Toback also shrinks from the world and talks to himself.
Not content to throw together a collage of people and places, Toback added a plot, on the theme of guilt and betrayal. A fine theme; unfortunately, it’s articulated by fashion model Claudia Schiffer as the world’s least-probable graduate student, Allan Houston (of the New York Knicks) as America’s oldest, most naïve college basketball star and Ben Stiller as nobody at all, other than a palimpsest of figures from previous Toback movies. These aren’t so much characters as preconceived notions. Thanks to Stiller, there’s still some amusement and diversion to be had from this part of Black and White–but absolutely nothing to discover.
Is this to say that a film must have a documentary impulse if it’s going to entertain in the better sense? One test of that proposition might be found in Me Myself I, a romantic comedy that’s as genteel in its artifice as Toback’s film is flighty and rude.