Is “Seduced and Abandoned” legit? Although it bears the imprimatur of HBO’s parody-averse documentary division, much of the film (airing Monday night) feels somewhat akin to the work of Christopher Guest or perhaps that of a couple of very well-connected Borats.
The productively nutso film director James Toback and the predictably talky actor Alec Baldwin are in cahoots here, jetting off with a camera crew to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. They’ve come to pitch deep-pocketed investors on a movie idea they call “Last Tango in Tikrit,” in homage to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris,” only with the Iraq war as a backdrop and with Baldwin playing the Marlon Brando role. They want to see if they can convince anyone to give them tens of millions of dollars to make it happen.
If it’s even partly a put-on, “Seduced and Abandoned” is nevertheless a fun, larky travel essay and commentary on the film biz, an exquisite wallow in the most rarefied sort of first-world problems. By following Toback and Baldwin on this half-cocked notion, we get to see what Cannes looks like from the A-list viewpoint, along with a history of what the film festivalused to be juxtaposed with the publicity circus it’s become. (Baldwin reveals early on that not only has he never been to Cannes, he’s never been to the French Riviera before this.)
In a playful act of sabotage, Toback is initially set on ’90s TV ingenue Neve Campbell to star opposite Baldwin (the two men are seen wooing Campbell and essentially promising her the role before they leave for France), but, to no one’s surprise, the investors aren’t thrilled with her marquee value. And while everyone’s being honest, they aren’t exactly thrilled with Baldwin’s, either, at least not in a sexually charged feature film.
So Toback and Baldwin dig in for long sessions of schmoozing, gabbing, noshing. They meet up with Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, Mike Medavoy, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Francis Ford Coppola, among others. To a person, these luminaries are all willing to have a serious conversation about the filmmaking craft, but the more earnestly they talk, the more it seems like they’re the victims of a prank.
Things get more awkward when Toback and Baldwin make their pitches to younger, hotter movie actors to see if they might like to star in “Last Tango in Tikrit.” In media-day mode, Jessica Chastain takes time for a confused, if effusive, quickie conversation about her approach to acting, while an unflappable Ryan Gosling seems to get the meta-joke exactly, if there’s a joke here to be had.
There are a lot of jokes to be had. Toback and Baldwin are well-practiced at riffs and ironic attempts at self-deprecation, even aboard yachts.
No one loves to hear the sound of his own voice more than Alec Baldwin, and no one should love to hear the sound of his own voice more than Alec Baldwin. While he lays on the charm and fritters away a mere fraction of his celebrity capital (what’s in your wallet?), it’s up to Toback to ditch good manners and ask directly for cash commitments. At 95 minutes in length, “Seduced and Abandoned” stretches the limits of how fascinating it is to watch actors, directors and billionaires blow smoke up one another’s derrieres, but this is Cannes, where everyone expects it.
I remain unconvinced that the pair was trying to make any movie besides this spoofy documentary. But stripped down to its essential message, “Seduced and Abandoned” is a futile open letter to Hollywood and a fancy way of expressing the heartbreak we all encounter in our chosen professions — Toback and Baldwin just happened to choose the film industry, which, as Baldwin repeatedly says, is especially crushing.
“You are seduced and abandoned over and over again,” he tells one journalist.
Such verite moments abound: While Toback and Baldwin beg for money, they also give interviews to the foreign media, creating a mood of crossed wires and lost translations. Nobody quite understands anybody else’s enthusiasm for the magic that may potentially lurk in a movie deal, but everyone understands the letdown.
(95 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m.
on HBO, with encores.