There is so much irony and out and out lunacy in James Toback's "Seduced and Abandoned" that you could easily mistake it for a Christopher Guest mockumentary about the myopic absurdity of the film industry.
But every enlightening, poignant or funny word is true in the documentary airing Monday on HBO. The fact that it is so funny eventually becomes strangely sad, which makes the film thoroughly enjoyable but also irresistibly provocative.
The film follows Toback and actor Alec Baldwin as they go to Cannes during the 2012 film festival to obtain funding for a film inspired by Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris." The new film will be called "Last Tango in Tikrit" and is meant to star Baldwin and actress Neve Campbell.
Toback, an Oscar winner for the screenplay for "Bugsy," records Baldwin and himself trying to work potential backers at the festival. Before leaving for France, they assure Campbell that even if they are offered complete backing in exchange for casting a better known actress in the lead, they are committed to having Campbell co-star.
In France, Toback and Baldwin meet first with Bertolucci. Despite being in significant pain, Bertolucci is brilliant, witty, expansive in his support for anyone wanting to make a great film and generous in sharing memories of Marlon Brando and "Last Tango."
Revealing that Brando didn't speak to the director for five years after "Tango" was released, Bertolucci is sure he knows why: "I stole from him so many sincere things," he says, by which he means that he got through Brando's defenses and elicited an especially raw and intimate performance from the actor.
Toback reckons they'll need $20 million to $25 million, but one financier after another tells them that the Baldwin-Campbell casting downgrades it and makes it a $4 million to $5 million film. We have some interest in whether they'll get the money, but mostly because it's such a quixotic quest: The money trail is only a convenient path for Toback and Baldwin to follow as they explore the foibles of the film business.
In time, they meet with A-list actors Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger and Ryan Gosling, among others. What about Campbell? Maybe they'll give her another part and she could get wounded, they propose to one potential backer who wants a bigger name in the lead role. Not kill her, mind you, maybe just wing her so she has to wear a sling.
The actors aren't fools. They know their own worth. The film takes its title from Baldwin's pronouncement that movies are "the world's worst lover. You are seduced and abandoned," yet you go back. And movies keep getting made to seduce and abandon you all over again.
You are likely to be so captivated, charmed and amused by the rest of the film that when it takes a seemingly odd turn at the end, you may be confused. Abruptly, recognizing that they have been seduced and abandoned themselves, Toback and Baldwin ask various film artists and money men if they are prepared for their own demise.
Some of the answers are funny, others evasive, but they all have to do with Norman Mailer's observation that "film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long." Every movie must end, just as every life must end. If art is an example of "Seduced and Abandoned," it is only imitating the nature of life and existence.