Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Like James Toback himself, his new film is in your face, overflowing with ideas, outrageous in its connections, maddening, illogical and fascinating. Also like its author, it is never boring. Toback is the brilliant wild child of indie cinema, now a wild man in his 50s, whose films sometimes seem half-baked, but you like them that way: The agony of invention is there on the screen.
"Black and White'' is one of those Manhattan stories where everyone knows one another: rich kids, ghetto kids, rappers, Brooke Shields, the district attorney, a rogue cop, a gambler, a basketball star, Mike Tyson, recording executives--they're all mixed up in a story about race, sex, music, bribery, fathers, sons, murder and lifestyles. What's amazing is how it's been marketed as a film about white kids who identify with black lifestyles and want to be black themselves. There's a little of that, and a lot more other stuff. It's a crime movie as much as anything.
The sex has gotten the most attention; the opening scene, of a threesome in Central Park, had to be recut three times to avoid the NC-17 rating (you can see the original version, murkily, on the Web). We meet Charlie (Bijou Phillips), the rich girl who "wants to be black'' and also adds, later, "I'm a little kid. Kids go through phases. When I grow up, I'll be over it. I'm a kid from America.'' True, the racial divide of years ago is blurred and disappearing among the younger siblings of Generation X. The characters in this movie slide easily in and out of various roles, with sex as the lubricant. Toback's camera follows one character into a situation and another out of it, gradually building a mosaic in which we meet a black gangster named Rich (hip-hop producer Power), a rap group (Wu-Tang Clan), a basketball guard named Dean (real-life Knicks forward Allan Houston), his faithless Ph.D. candidate girlfriend (Claudia Schiffer), a crooked cop (Ben Stiller), a documentary filmmaker (Brooke Shields), the husband everyone but she knows is gay (Robert Downey Jr.), and former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, playing himself, and improvising some of the best scenes.
The story, which involves bribery, murder and blackmail, I will leave for you to discover. Consider the style. Toback has observed that for musicians like Wu-Tang Clan, their language is their art form, so he didn't write a lot of the movie's dialogue. Instead, he plugged actors into situations, told them where they had to go and let them improvise. This leads to an electrifying scene where Downey makes a sexual advance on Mike Tyson ("In the dream, you were holding me''), and Tyson's reaction is quick and spontaneous.