BLACK AND WHITE

Rumor has it that a good deal of James Toback’s new film was
improvised, and from the end result it certainly seems that way.
Not that “Black and White” is technically inept; it looks good,
and the cinematography is entirely professional. But in terms
of narrative and plot construction, the picture is messy and
ultimately pointless.

Toback’s script boasts entirely too many themes and too many
characters. At various times it’s about (1) white kids who
imitate gangsta culture, (2) a local hood who’s trying to break
into the music business, (3) a college basketball star who’s
enticed by an undercover cop into fixing a game and then set
up to betray an old friend, (4) a D.A. dad who’s bribed to
help his on-the-street son, who’s cajoled into committing a
murder, (5) two oddball documentary filmmakers (the wife is
straight, her hubby gay), and (6) Mike Tyson offering advice–
among a variety of other things. A formidable cast slips in
and out of these various interrelated plot threads, but there
seems to be little rhyme or reason behind their presence or
absence; figures who appeared to be central during the first
half-hour have virtually disappeared by the close, without any
explanation. One begins to wonder whether Toback wasn’t
emulating Ed Wood here, filming sporadic scenes with actors as
they might be available and then just editing in other stuff
when their story lines couldn’t be completed because they’d
moved on to other things. The outcome is a movie that wants
to be some sort of meaningful collage of incidents but seems
a chaotic grab-bag instead.

Under the circumstances none of the cast make much of an
impression. Power has some presence as mob leader Rich, but
his acting is generalized and his diction sloppy. Brooke
Shields and Robert Downey, Jr. are embarrassing as the camera
duo (the latter appearing to be in a perpetual drug haze),
while Joe Pantoliano registers briefly as the D.A. (Scott Caan,
however, overdoes things as his wayward son). The worst work
probably comes in the basketball-themed subplot. New York
Knicks player Allan Houston is awkward as the misled hoopster,
while Ben Stiller goes through a lot of stilted shtick as the
weird cop who entraps him; and Claudia Schiffer is so stiff
as the girlfriend whom, as it turns out, they both share that
she appears to be a mannequin.

Amazingly enough, the performer who comes off best is Mike
Tyson, who, in a brief cameo playing himself, tweaks his own
personality and past foibles (including his hitch in jail).
When, in response to a come-on, Tyson protests that he’s on
parole, it’s one of the few lines in the picture that strike
the viewer as both authentic and amusing.

If you do go to see “Black and White,” be advised that the
picture opens with a scene in Central Park involving Bijou
Phillips as a gangsta wannabe that’s very explicit and
unpleasant; but after that deliberately shocking introduction,
the picture becomes much more guarded and less offensive. The
trouble is that it diesn’t get a whole lot better in the
process.