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Dustin Putman

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Black and White (1999)
2 Stars

Directed by James Toback
Cast: Ben Stiller, Brooke Shields, Robert Downey Jr., Allan Houston, Power, Bijou Phillips, Claudia Schiffer, Eddie K. Thomas, William Lee Scott, Elijah Wood, Gaby Hoffmann, Raekwon, Mike Tyson, Scott Caan, Jared Leto, Joe Pantoliano, Marla Maples, Stacy Edwards, Method Man.
1999 – 100 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, profanity, nudity, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 7, 1999.

Writer-director James Toback's ambitions are clear. In making a film about the wall that stands between people of different races, no matter how much everyone strives to be the same, and treating his characters not dissimilarly from those presented in Robert Altman's 1975 masterwork, "Nashville," all Toback has really done is accidentally uncovered the source of his filmmaking weaknesses. Mixing his screenplay with improvisatory material between his eclectic group of actors, in an expose of over twenty different characters in New York City, Toback's latest picture, the aptly-titled "Black and White," is consistently fascinating, but doesn't add up to all that much. While one can walk away from a theater appreciating that the film actually has more than a few fleeting thoughts in its mind, there is rarely, if ever, a clear attempt to develop the wide array of characters from being anything more than symbolic figures or broad-based stereotypes.

Free-floating in style and without a clear-cut destination, "Black and White" doesn't follow, as much as it wanders around the inhabitants on screen, before jumping to the next scene. If there is any character that the film revolves around, it is NYU film grad Sam (Brooke Shields) who has come to make a documentary on the fad of white teenagers who favor acting "black" and listening to hip-hop music, with her flamboyantly gay husband, Terry (Robert Downey Jr.), in tow. Sam's central subjects are a small group of high schoolers, including Charlie (Bijou Phillips), Wren (Elijah Wood), and Raven (Gaby Hoffmann), all brought up in wealthy households, who nonetheless rebel at both their parents and the present-day society that says kids should all conform to act and dress and behave a certain way.

Meanwhile, college basketball player Dean (Allan Houston) is approached by Mark (Ben Stiller), a mystery man who offers him $50,000 dollars to botch his next big game. Dean is unsure of what he should do, and his scholarly girlfriend Greta (Claudia Schiffer), currently writing a thesis on the subject of race, isn't much help, only advising him to go with his heart. Intersecting with everything is Rich Bower (Power), who is finally starting to edge away from his criminal lifestyle and into the world of being a recording artist.

Acquiring a remarkably diverse cast that includes real-life stars playing themselves (Mike Tyson, Method Man), actual thespians (Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Elijah Wood), recording artists (Power, Bijou Phillips), supermodels (Claudia Schiffer), and NBA players (Allan Houston), the major surprise "Black and White" has to offer is that its performances are uniformly good. Making a picture that was largely stressed by Toback to be improvisational must have been a daunting task for most involved, and everyone comes off naturally and in unaffected turns, despite having roles that could have used a few deeper shades of characterization. For all of its "true-to-life" chit-chat, these people have very few ideas or distinct personality traits, and more often than not, do things because the film calls for it, rather than because that is what the characters themselves would do.

While everyone works as a unit, and thus, few of the actors get much of a chance to stand out amidst the dizzying movement from one character or story to the next, a select few should be noted. Claudia Schiffer, of all people, is excellent as the supposedly kind-hearted girlfriend of Dean, whose true colors abruptly show, unveiling her to be a conniving backstabber. Brooke Shields, in her strongest film role in years, is appropriately eager and wide-eyed as the documentary filmmaker who is shown to have an extreme insecurity of being alone when Terry, played to the comic hilt by Robert Downey Jr., finally makes her face the fact that he is gay and has absolutely no interest in a relationship anymore. Eddie K. Thomas (of 1999's "American Pie") is surprisingly versatile and adept as one of the high schoolers being documented, whose father is withdrawn and unconcerned about him, favoring his newest girlfriend (Stacy Edwards) over him or his older son, Will (William Lee Scott), whom he hasn't seen in two years. And as the platinum blond high school history teacher who catches the eye of Terry, Jared Leto sparkles in only a handful of scenes.

Whereas the actors are entertaining throughout, and bring what little depth there possibly can be brought to such a decidedly one-dimensional display of stick figures, "Black and White" stumbles because its messages are never reasonably dealt with in any sort of satisfying manner. For example, several scenes hint at making a statement about the distressing distance between removed parents and their children, but it never reaches any sort of conclusion. Nor does anything else in "Black in White;" things just happen, simply because they happen, and before you have had time to take it all in, you are already onto the next scene.

The finale is particularly anticlimactic, as we are treated to a bogus "Six Months Later" title card, which then reveals what happened to all of the characters. This gimmicky epilogue would be tolerable if not for its ludicrous payoff. Credit "Black and White" for its occasional flashes of storytelling originality, but Robert Altman has done the same thing one-hundred times better, and with a remarkable and startling depth that Toback cries for, and so unfortunately lacks.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman