Movie Review: Cuba Gooding Jr.’s ‘Bayou Caviar’ a Heady N’awlins Stew
A half-decade ago, the presence of Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. in a film’s leading role wasn’t exactly a sign of quality: the star saw a sharp decline after standout performances in films like Jerry Maguire & As Good As it Gets, and headlined a dozen or so direct-to-video-level projects you’re unlikely to have have ever heard about in the ensuing years.
But Gooding Jr. rejuvenated his career with a standout performance as O.J. Simpson in the first season of American Crime Story alongside other well-received work on TV.
Bayou Caviar is Gooding Jr.’s screenwriting and directorial debut, his first film project in four years, and it’s dedicated to his father. It would seem that the film might be something of a statement comeback vehicle for the star.
A few minutes of screentime, however, will be enough to put you off of that notion. Though that’s not to say Bayou Caviar isn’t interesting. It’s a heady, sweaty N’awlins drama that almost turns fascinating in the utterly unconventional directions it takes its story at every step of the way.
Bayou Caviar’s ridiculously labyrinthine storyline kicks off when Shlomo (Ken Lerner), Jewish accountant to the Russian mafia in New Orleans, informs mob boss Yuri (Richard Dreyfuss) that he’s packing it up and retiring to Israel - - but it’s all OK, because stepson Isaac (Gregg Bello) will take care of his account.
Gooding Jr. stars as Rodney Jones, an ex-boxer and current nightclub bouncer behind on his child support who drives manager Rafi (Sam Thakur) to a meet-and-greet with Yuri. Rafi has the bad presence of mind to mouth off, and is rewarded by being fed to the alligators Yuri keeps out back.
And by simply bearing witness to what transpires, Rodney is immediately adopted into the Russian mafia’s service. His first job: to dig up (or create) some dirt on Isaac so they have the goods to ensure his future complicity.
Here’s where things in Bayou Caviar start to go off the rails. Out of all ways to accomplish this task, Rodney gets the bright idea to a) seduce Isaac’s 16-year-old neighbor Kat (Lia Marie Johnson) and b) convince her to make a sex tape with Isaac, which will both help start her acting career (?) and give the Russian mafia all they need on their target.
Yes, the hero of Bayou Caviar seduces a teenager and convinces her to make a sex tape to help him get out of a jam that has a hundred other solutions. There’s a ‘twist’ at the end intended to make Rodney seem not-so-bad that only showcases further naïveté on behalf of the filmmakers.
But then there’s Famke Janssen as Nic, the lesbian photographer that Rodney ropes into helping him. Janssen breathes life into every scene of Bayou Caviar she’s in; she steals the movie away from its director-star, and her character’s subplot is the only thing here that has any kind of emotional resonance.
Bayou Caviar may be bad, and even offensive in its treatment of both sexual abuse and (for some reason) New Orleans’ Jewish community, but it’s never boring. This is a unique vision, fully realized, complete with languid widescreen cinematography by Wedigo von Schultzendorff and efficient editing from Keith Reamer.
Without question, Bayou Caviar is the movie that Gooding Jr. set out to make. But nobody seemed to ask him… why?