Two facts are essential to understanding the life and work of screenwriter, director, actor, author, Warren Beatty buddy, and all-around raconteur James Toback. First, he's a smart, gutsy, idiosyncratic filmmaker with a unique body of work and a singular set of obsessions. Second, he's full of beans. Nicholas Jarecki's entertaining but maddening new documentary The Outsider pays reverent homage to Toback while giving him a free pass on the arrogant narcissism and name-dropping that make him such a frustrating figure.
The Outsider centers on the making of 2004's When Will I Be Loved, a largely improvised low-budget drama that, to Toback, represents yet another insane gamble in a career full of them. This stance somehow fails to acknowledge that making a $2 million movie with a name director, a sex-saturated plot, and so much celebrity nudity that it could easily be re-titled Neve Campbell's Arty Boob Party is a fairly safe commercial bet. Even the reliance on improvisation isn't as risky at it seems; since Toback's Two Girls And A Guy and Black And White were largely improvised, working without a solid script constitutes his modus operandi, not a crazy new experiment.
Jarecki gives Toback ample space to spin his oft-repeated personal mythology, from the legendary eight-day acid freak-out that freed him forever from the strictures of humility to his free-love phase as the only white man in Jim Brown's bacchanalian posse. There's a lot of can't-miss material here, like Toback and Mike Tyson mugging shamelessly for the camera, but of the luminaries interviewed, only Robert Downey Jr. compromises the mutual-appreciation vibe by calling Toback on his bullshit, affectionately calling him both a genius and "a retard." Roger Ebert defends him against charges of self-indulgence by arguing that all great directors are self-indulgent; Jarecki's appreciation argues otherwise. But the poorly selected excerpts from Toback's films included here—and, of course, his wildly inconsistent oeuvre—unwittingly suggest that Toback is ultimately more self-indulgent than great.
Key features: Engaging deleted scenes, a gracious, complimentary Jarecki commentary, and a characteristically gregarious yet entertaining Toback commentary.