The cast of "Black and White" reads like the guest list of a Hollywood party, which includes the likes of Brooke Shields (TV's "Suddenly Susan"), ex-Trump trophy wife Marla Maples, Knicks foward Allan Houston, film director Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour"), rising star Elijah Wood ("Deep Impact"), disgraced boxer Mike Tyson, and supermodel Claudia Schiffer. Director James Toback ("Two Guys and a Girl") has certainly gathered quite an impressive roster for his latest film, a stream-of-consciousness narrative that follows twenty-or-so New Yorkers as they cross paths with each other over the space of a few days. So what's the 411 on "Black and White"? Not good, as "Black and White" is nothing more than a pretentious exercise in maudlin drama that purports to examine the state of race relations in modern-day America.
On the surface, "Black and White" resembles John Sayles' "City of Hope", as the ever-roving camera moves in and out of the lives of several characters, who are all related to one another, either through friendship or by circumstance, thereby creating a collage of the racial, cultural, and economic diversity found within New York. Rich (rap producer Power) is a black gangster who is helping a rap group (Wu-Tang Clan) cut their first record. Rich's best friend Dean (Houston), a basketball player dating a white anthropology Ph.D student (Schiffer), is offered $50,000 by a gambler (Ben Stiller of "Keeping the Faith") to throw a game. Meanwhile, Sam Donager (Shields) and her gay husband Terry (Robert Downey Jr. of "Wonder Boys") are making a documentary on why white kids are taking riffs from hip-hop culture, and end up following a bunch of white teenagers who include spoiled rich girl Charlie (Bijou Phillips of "Sugar Town") and the confused Wren (Wood). Also thrown into the mix are a District Attorney (Joe Pantoliano of "The Matrix") whose estranged son Will (William Lee Scott of "October Sky") becomes involved in murder and blackmail scheme, disgraced boxer Mike Tyson (playing himself), and movie director Brett Ratner (playing himself).
And like Wong Kar-wai's "Chungking Express" and "Fallen Angels", most of the dialogue in the film was improvised, with the actors responsible for coming up with their own lines, given only the situation and how it was supposed to turn out. In some areas of the film, this works quite well, particularly in the scenes involving Tyson, whose actions and reactions come across as truly earnest and spontaneous, particularly in a scene where Sam and Terry meet Tyson, with surprisingly different results. Not surprisingly, with many off-the-cuff moments in the film, the dialogue borders on the verbose in some instances.
With a narrative that echoes the work of John Sayles and a free-form production reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai, how could Toback mess up so badly? Unfortunately, it is not clear exactly what point Toback was trying to make with this film, or if he actually ever had one in mind. "Black and White" is a frustrating film to sit through, mainly because everything that happens on the screen is almost inconsequential. Other than a small section in the film's second act where an actual life-and-death struggle injects some much-needed energy into the proceedings, this is a film populated by disjointed vignettes of talking heads that never come to a point.
The marketing for "Black and White" seems to suggest that the film is about the blurring racial divide in today's society, particularly among the youth, yet this thematic undercurrent quickly becomes dispelled as Toback tries to juggle almost two dozen speaking parts and some clunky plot mechanics (the story thread between Stiller and Houston is particularly contrived). With so many characters to keep track of, the 'script' doesn't have a chance to develop them adequately, and so it is difficult to become emotionally involved with the melodrama occurring in the story. Even when Toback actually tries to speak to the themes of race and sexual politics, he does it in the most blatantly expository way possible-- he has his characters give long-winded speeches that seem out of phase with everything else that's going on in the scene.
The last time I had to sit through such a disjointed mess of a film was Richard Linklater's "Slacker", which was also a pretentious bore that featured a revolving door of characters that ultimately didn't matter to the story. That film put me to sleep, and this is what "Black and White" almost did. It is beyond me what Toback was thinking about when he put "Black and White" together, which is nothing more than an agonizing and frustrating cinematic experience. Who knows-- maybe he was trying to use up some film stock before it expired.