The Kid Stays In the Picture

(2002) *** R
91 min. USA. Directors: Brett Morgen, Nanette Burstein. Cast: Robert Evans, Ali MacGraw, Bob Hope, Dustin Hoffman, Herve Villechaize.

"There are three sides to every story: yours...mine...and the truth. No one is lying." Like the best-selling non-fiction book, the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture opens with Robert Evans's disclaimer. The legendary Evans went from disposable, B-grade actor to groundbreaking boy genius producer, who pulled Paramount up from certain ruin to number one with hits like Love Story, Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and a little number called The Godfather. On its own terms, the film, like the book, thoroughly entertains while gleefully raising eyebrows with Evans's blunt talk. As a documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture straight-forwardly but naggingly flouts objectivity.

Right from the start, directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen evoke Evans's hit book-on-tape recording, with one-time voice actor Evans narrating his own story. Aside from relatively brief archival footage, though, we never see Evans telling stories. Rather, Burstein and Morgen charge Evans's story with innovative visuals; using cut-outs, sliding motions, and effects like cigarette smoke floating up from an otherwise still photo, the directors open a living Robert Evans scrapbook.

It's on that behind-the-private-gates level that the film works. Evans is a skillful and compellingly blunt storyteller, such that it hardly matters whether he's a straight-talker or a B.S. artist. Evans unhesitatingly trashes former lovers and colleagues (though he effaces himself along the way)--spewing commentary on broads, dames, or--perhaps the worst dirty word to Evans--actresses. And the unprecedented documentation of the subject (including an end-credit-roll, vintage goof by a big star) can be jaw-dropping.

Still, this book-on-film would have benefited from testing Evans's fearlessness with some talking-heads anecdotes from friends and enemies or by following Evans around while he does his presumably frustrating producing duties on lesser, contemporary films. By framing Evans's life as Hollywood fairy tale/cautionary tale, Evans comes off as the wax figure he increasingly resembles, untouchable and unnaturally imperturbable.

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