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Up the Downey Staircase: Brooke Shields and Robert Downey Jr. play a slumming pair of faux filmmakers in 'Black and White.'

In Search of Cool

The vapid preppies in James Toback's 'Black and White' crave a dose of hip-hop menace

By Richard von Busack

IN AN ERA when most filmmakers won't touch the subject of race relations with a stick, director/writer James Toback is clearly willing to address the subject from a stick's length. Black and White is an addled, overpraised mess--a much bigger noise in New York than it will be here.

The film features a circle of prep-school kids who are variously either concubines, tools or drinking buddies of a group of African-American rap musicians. These privileged white kids have picked up black argot and dress--though the clothing is no large charge because everybody who earns under 50k a year dresses pretty much like everybody else in America today.

The complaints these kids make about not having identity are, I think, valid. Toback (blowhard screenwriter/director of Two Girls and a Guy) didn't write a script for them, and none of these novices is as yet skilled enough to improvise characters from the ether. Meanwhile, as a framing device, we see a documentary team composed of Robert Downey Jr. and Brooke Shields (last seen being bitch-slapped by Terence and Philip) follow the vapid kids around.

These two, a mixed heterosexual and homosexual couple, are obviously just as vapid as their quarry, because they have nothing incisive to ask the students. Meanwhile, a cop (Ben Stiller, never worse) tries to bribe and extort a basketball player (Allan Houston of the Knicks, not an adequate actor) to drop a dime on the basketball player's gangsta chum, one of the aforementioned rap artists.

Stiller is given the least bone here, improvising from a standard Toback rant about being a gambler who wants spiritual redemption. It's Toback's same tired old bull crashing out of the same balsa-wood gate again.

Comparisons to Godard are blasphemous. Toback hasn't worked any of Black and White out as an argument. Unlike Godard, who was often funny, Toback is humor-impaired. The height of wit in this is a series of fag jokes by the deathly ill-looking Downey.

And there's no balance or composition to Black and White; Toback throws up the spindled, would-be salacious odds and ends and tries to sell them--as always--as the turbulent passions of an avant-garde filmmaker.

TO BE FAIR, Mike Tyson is fascinating in a small role as Mike Tyson. His performance comes despite Toback, not because of him, since the director thought it would be an amusing improv to have Tyson fight off a homosexual pass from Downey's caricatured homosexual. Tyson has, in real life, experienced the suffering and confusion that Toback's characters affect like a Kangol beanie.

There is also a scene in which members of the Wu-Tang Clan stand by a graffiti monument to their friends slain in Staten Island gang wars. This semi-interview with real-life rappers has the authority and gravity that I think the wigga-kids nationwide are attracted to and try to copy in a pose.

Black and White (R; 98 min.), directed and written by James Toback, photographed by David M. Ferrara and starring Robert Downey Jr., Allan Houston, Brooke Shields and Mike Tyson, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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