The Popcorn King
It's a bright March afternoon on the set of Rush Hour 3, and the mood is tense. After shooting last winter on location in Paris, the production has returned to Los Angeles behind schedule and over budget. The Supermarine Executive Air Terminal of the Santa Monica Airport has been transformed into the Paris — Le Bourget airport, and on the tarmac, stars Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan rehearse what is to be the film's final scene — a friendly farewell between their characters, LAPD Detective James Carter and Hong Kong police inspector Lee. More than 100 days into a shoot that has entailed multiple complicated action and stunt sequences, this should be a cinch. But at the playback monitor, Brett Ratner, the director who has guided the Rush Hour series since the beginning, feels something is off.
At one point in the scene, Chan turns to Tucker and affectionately says, "You will always be my nigga." But Ratner thinks Chan's enunciation is causing "nigga" to sound too much like a certain undesirable expletive. Tucker could live without the line altogether, no matter that it's an intentional echo of a signature Chan line — "What's up, my nigga?" — from the first Rush Hour film in 1998.
"You've got this great movie and you're gonna end it with this racist word," Tucker chides Ratner only half jokingly, before warning Chan: "Every black person in America is going to hate you."
"You've been spending too much time with Oprah," Ratner fires back in reference to Tucker's recent trip to Africa in the company of the talk-show host.
Language, as I quickly discover, functions as a kind of currency on a Rush Hour set. It is, on the one hand, the very bedrock of a movie franchise predicated on culture clash.
"Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?" the fast-talking Tucker memorably asked the English-impaired Asian superstar upon their initial meeting in L.A. during the first Rush Hour film. It was the obvious answer — "No" — that lent both Rush Hour and its 2001 sequel (which deposited Tucker's character on the streets of Hong Kong) much of their fish-out-of-water comedy. A not dissimilar scene transpired when Chan and Tucker first met in real life, with each actor subsequently telling Ratner that he hadn't understood a thing the other had said. It was then that Ratner knew he had hit upon the chemistry that has proven key to the enormous popularity of the Rush Hour franchise.
It is likewise language — specifically, the acrobatic juggling of it — that has established Tucker as the most verbally dexterous screen comic since the young Eddie Murphy. On the Rush Hour 3 set, he rarely says a line the same way twice, and the more he improvises, the better things tend to get. But like some mathematical savant who can solve an impossible calculus proof but gets tripped up by an ordinary addition problem, Tucker sometimes flubs or simply forgets an important bit of dialogue. In the end-credits outtakes of Rush Hour, the actor could be seen foiling take after take of the line, "Who do they think they kidnapped, Chelsea Clinton?" Audiences who stay to the end of Rush Hour 3 can see Tucker engaged in a similarly Sisyphean struggle with the name of the fast-food chain El Pollo Loco.
Meanwhile, despite a decade of actively working in Hollywood, Chan's English remains spotty. His dialogue coach, Diana Weng, is present at all times, holding a clipboard just off-camera on which Chan's lines are written out in large block letters. Still, Tucker's habit of going off-book can leave Chan in the lurch. All of which makes great fodder for the blooper reel, but adds to the anxiety on the set.
In a Los Angeles Times profile published a few days prior to my set visit, New Line Cinema CEO Bob Shaye, whose studio has produced all three Rush Hour films, laid much of the blame for the production's overages at Ratner's feet, even going so far as to call it "a betrayal of the trust New Line has put into him." (Ratner responded by calling Shaye penny wise and pound foolish.) But when I show up, Ratner seems largely unfazed, despite the presence of New Line's gruff, wheelchair-bound vice president of physical production, Leon Dudevoir, who has been sent by the studio to keep a watchful eye on the shooting.
Like many people I talk to about Ratner over the following weeks and months, my own first impression of the 38-year-old director is one of boyish enthusiasm mixed with intractable persistence. Following a short break for lunch, Chan's line has been changed. "You will always be my homie," he now says. But Ratner still insists on take after take as Tucker tries out a series of increasingly inspired riffs on his own dialogue. Ratner likes what he hears and, in between takes, he bounds across the set in his faded T-shirt, baggy jeans (made more so by the absence of a belt) and worn sneakers to praise Tucker and further egg him on. Only now, hours after shooting began, is the scene really starting to catch fire, and Ratner seems determined to keep at it until Tucker and Chan are in perfect comic harmony. It is, Rush Hour 3 screenwriter Jeff Nathanson will later tell me, typical of Ratner's approach.
"What Brett does is work his crew to the point where everyone has pretty much hit the wall — where the actors, the grips, everyone is ready to call it a day," Nathanson says. "And that's when Brett is able to kick things into a whole other gear. Just when you think you're almost out the door, that's when he'll go for another two hours and, in almost every case, what he gets in those two hours is what ends up in the film. He just knows, intuitively, when he hasn't gotten that exact spark he needs. In comedy, it's so important to have that kind of patience, to see that something can be a little bit better, or in some cases a lot better."
"He has the energy of a dozen athletes," adds Rush Hour series producer Arthur Sarkissian. "The guy is unbelievable. He will not quit. He can be exhausted and not have slept, but on the set he's completely there. Nothing escapes his eyes. He sees every fucking thing."
Still, even Ratner can not roll back the clouds that have begun to obscure the afternoon sky. The cinematographer, J. Michael Muro, is worried about losing the light and has joined Ratner at the monitor, where Dudevoir repeatedly eyes his watch. One of the film's other producers, Andrew Z. Davis, urges Ratner to move on.
Finally, the pressure builds to a head, and Ratner snaps: "If Bob Shaye wants to come down here and direct Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan himself, let him do it!" he shouts.
Dudevoir cracks a smile — something that heretofore seemed impossible — and says that he actually thought Ratner was making pretty good time.
Such are the stressful, workaday realities of Hollywood filmmaking as you might observe them on any number of sets, but especially on those belonging to summer tentpole movies that have the fortunes of entire studios wrapped up in them. Budgeted at an estimated $120 million — roughly four times what the original film cost to make — Rush Hour 3, which will be released on August 10, is one of the biggest investments ever undertaken by the fiscally conservative New Line, save for another highly successful in-house franchise: Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. There, the cost was special effects. Here, the stars are the special effects — namely Tucker, who now receives a $20 million payday (officially, though some reports have pegged the figure as high as $25 million) plus 20 percent of the film's back end, and Chan, who gets $15 million, 15 percent of the gross and distribution rights to the film in key Asian territories. (As for Ratner, fret not; he's well taken care of too.) In addition, Rush Hour 3 stands as New Line's surest bet for a major hit after a long dry spell — more than two years during which none of the studio's movies have grossed more than $60 million at the domestic box office.
"We have three movies this year that are really important, that have to perform, which are Hairspray, Rush Hour 3 and The Golden Compass," says New Line president of production Toby Emmerich. "So, there's a lot of pressure on Rush Hour 3, though in a way, it's the one I feel the most comfortable about because it has a three in the title. At least a lot of people have seen and liked a Rush Hour movie."
Ultimately, the person most responsible for making sure people see and like Rush Hour 3 is the director whose seven feature films have generated more than $1 billion in global ticket sales, putting him in the elite company of Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, M. Night Shyamalan and a select few others who have reached that milestone before their 40th birthdays. The first two Rush Hours alone account for $600 million of that tally, while, in the six years since Rush Hour 2, Brett Ratner has directed popular entries in two other long-running franchises: Red Dragon (2002), the fourth film derived from Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter novels, and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the third and highest-grossing in the series of Marvel Comics adaptations. Barely a decade after making his feature-film debut, he has navigated a remarkable ascension of the Hollywood power list, earning the respect of such moviemaking elder statesmen as Warren Beatty (with whom Ratner developed an unproduced remake of John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie) and Roman Polanski (who gives a cameo performance in Rush Hour 3) in the process. Yet if Ratner is undeniably one of the few "name" directors of his generation, his remains a name more likely to be found in the gossip columns than the culture pages.
There, Ratner is routinely depicted as a poseur and a fool — a self-absorbed lothario more adept at staging parties in the basement disco of his Benedict Canyon mansion than he is at making movies. Like his contemporary, Michael Bay, he is anathema to cinephiles and other high-culture guardians. Critical reaction to Ratner's films usually runs the gamut from dismissive to contemptuous — so much so that, in his positive review of Red Dragon, Roger Ebert sounded almost apologetic for having liked the movie. ("To my surprise," he wrote of Ratner's direction, "he does a sure, stylish job.") At the L.A.-based gossip Web site Defamer, where Ratner can scarcely order a soft-serve yogurt without becoming headline news, he has been lumped together with the likes of Bay, Crash director Paul Haggis and rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie and branded a "fauxteur."
Ratner, of course, isn't the first commercially successful filmmaker to be denied serious artistic credibility — much the same could be said of Spielberg and Ron Howard early in their careers. Were that the case, it would be easy enough to understand, given that Ratner specializes in the kind of unapologetically populist "popcorn" movies that almost never win awards or garner rave reviews. No, the curious thing about Ratner is the uniquely vicious tenor of the criticism he engenders, as if he didn't deserve his success and the perks that come with it; as if to be seen in the same room with Paris Hilton were an unforgivable sin; as if, quite frankly, he were enjoying his life too much.
"Whatever envy somebody is harboring — and most people are harboring at least a little bit of envy — Brett is going to bring it out of them," says Jay Stern, the former New Line executive who now runs Ratner's production company, Rat Entertainment. "He's living the dream. He has a tremendous amount of fun. He doesn't hide the fact that he has fun. He enjoys life to the hilt, and if people aren't enjoying life to the hilt ... envy's going to come up for them."
But is it merely envy that explains why, in my career as a journalist, I have never been greeted with as many expressions of skepticism, bafflement and outright disbelief from colleagues and friends as I have since first announcing I was working on this story? "You want to write about him?" they have asked, not infrequently followed by, "Did he really fuck Lindsay Lohan?" All of which, I must admit, has only served to redouble my interest. Most of the time when you tell people about a filmmaker you're profiling, all you get is a noncommittal "Oh" or an uncomprehending "Who?" But with Ratner, everyone — especially, I find, those who've never met the man or even seen many of his films — has an opinion.
It is a level of scrutiny, it must be said, that Ratner helps to bring upon himself. "The traditional Hollywood image of the director is the quiet guy in the background who's the puppeteer, not the guy who's out there in front of everybody," says Davis, who has produced or executive-produced four Ratner films. "That's who Brett is. But so what?"
"He seems to be almost an effervescent symbol of popular culture," adds director James Toback, who cast Ratner as himself in his 1999 urban drama Black and White. "And it's as if by being someone who says, 'This is where we are today in popular culture,' that means you're not taking things as seriously as you should. With Brett, the irony is that he's smarter than the people who think that way about him."
Which brings me to the other reason I've wanted to write about Ratner. It is an idea that may initially strike you as radical or preposterous, and which could jeopardize my standing in the film-criticism community. And yet, here goes: Brett Ratner is a talented filmmaker who deserves to be taken seriously.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to overstate the case for Ratner by suggesting that he's one of those innovative movie stylists whose work forever alters the face of the medium. (He's not — or, at least, not yet.) But neither is Ratner one of the anonymous Hollywood hacks who makes a library's worth of movies without ever leaving a recognizable fingerprint. Nor is he one of the prodigiously untalented, self-serious directors — the true fauxteurs — who achieve "importance" by pandering to the basest instincts of Oscar voters. What I am proposing is simply that Ratner excels at a kind of highly enjoyable, wholly unpretentious entertainment that isn't nearly as easy to manufacture as it seems; that he is a singular personality; and that, unlike many Hollywood flavors-of-the-month, he is most definitely here to stay. In fact, he's just getting started.
There is a mythology about Brett Ratner that goes something like this: Scrappy Jewish kid from Miami Beach who dreams of making movies skips high school to hang out on the set of Brian De Palma's Scarface until he makes himself such a nuisance that De Palma casts him as an extra. That same kid later talks his way into NYU film school despite an unimpressive GPA, where, on a lark, he writes to Steven Spielberg asking for $1,000 toward the budget of a student film, and later receives a check in the mail. A chance meeting with then-nascent Def Jam Records mogul Russell Simmons gets him a gig directing hip-hop music videos; those videos just happen to premiere on MTV at the very moment the network begins adding directors' names to the credit blocks, thus turning Ratner into one of the most sought-after video directors of the early '90s and an avatar of hip-hop's infiltration of mainstream pop culture.
"He embraced me, treated me like his little brother or his son, and he exposed me to that world," says Ratner of Simmons. "I wasn't the white kid who was like, 'Yo, what's up with that?' I was doing hip-hop videos, but I wasn't acting black. I was who I was."
"There are only a handful of guys that I've met in the movie world who mix interracially as though there were no such thing as race — not just who have some black friends, but who actually behave in a way when they're in interracial situations where there is no sense that they're even thinking about it," says Toback. "I always sort of secretly prided myself on feeling that this was a quality I had and that no one else I'd met had to the same degree, but starting with the first day of shooting on Black and White, I saw that Brett has the same thing. The irony was that he was playing a guy who wanted to direct Wu-Tang Clan in a video, and in real life he already had directed them in a video!"
Ratner's videos — some of them can be found as extras on the DVDs of his feature films — are stylish, highly cinematic affairs, usually conceived as mininarratives rather than collages of abstract images. One, for the 1994 Heavy D track "Nuttin' but Love," included an appearance by then up-and-coming comic Chris Tucker, who three years later would be cast opposite Charlie Sheen in the New Line—produced action comedy Money Talks. When the film's original director proved unable to cope with his star's rampant improvising and walked off the set, it was Tucker who suggested Ratner as a replacement.
Ratner was ultimately one of three directors considered for the assignment; once again, his chutzpah carried the day. "He came in and, for 20 or 25 minutes straight, just pitched his heart out to say why he should be the director," remembers Stern, who, together with New Line's then president of production Michael De Luca, ended up giving Ratner the job. Released in the summer of 1997, Money Talks wasn't a great movie, but it was funny (Ratner deems it his funniest film to date), a fine early showcase for Tucker, and a generally solid effort by an untested director thrown into the fires of a major Hollywood production just two weeks before the start of shooting.
After the movie became a modest hit, Ratner turned his powers of persuasion on Stern, entreating him to leave the studio to come and work for him. At the time, Stern declined. "I was like, 'I'm kind of an up-and-coming executive. I'm not going to leave and go produce movies. You directed one movie!'" Four years later, when Ratner renewed the offer in the wake of Rush Hour, Stern accepted. "When he gets enthusiastic about something," Stern says, "look out — he's going to make it happen."
"He could sell ice to Eskimos," says Rush Hour 3 associate producer David Gorder, echoing the sentiments of almost everyone I talk to for this article.
It's a trait Ratner ascribes to his mother, Marsha Presman, who taught him to be fearless in the pursuit of his goals. Described by Ratner as "a bit of a party girl in Miami" — a hint that extroversion may run in the family — she was just 16 when she gave birth out of wedlock, and Ratner grew up thinking of her less as a parent than as an older sibling. His father, Ronny, a ne'er-do-well rich kid who Ratner tersely calls "a druggie, a fuckup," wasn't in the picture at all; by the time they finally met, Ratner was already 16. Meanwhile, the man Ratner called "Dad" and credits with raising him was Alvin Malnick, a Miami lawyer and friend of Ratner's paternal grandfather whose clients included the gangster Meyer Lansky.
As a teenager, Ratner developed a close bond with another family friend, famed music producer and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. It was Rodgers who bought him his first Super 8 movie camera and allowed him to bring it into the studio during the recording of Madonna's seminal Like a Virgin album in 1985. "Madonna was like, 'Get this kid away from me, he's so annoying!,'" Ratner remembers. A scant 14 years later, Ratner found himself directing the pop star in the video to her "Beautiful Stranger" single from the Austin Powers soundtrack.
Then, earlier this year, the mythology came full circle with Ratner's self-effacing cameo on HBO's Entourage, in which the show's endearingly bullheaded career bit player Johnny "Drama" Chase (Kevin Dillon) convinces Ratner to cast him in Rush Hour 3 by invoking the director's own storied history of lucky breaks and refusing to take "no" for an answer. The kid who once had to hustle his way into film school is now the director kids go to film school trying to become. And when Ratner tells you how it all happened — as I saw him do this past May before an audience of students at the Cannes Film Festival — he does so with such beguiling, if-I-could-do-it-you-can-too modesty, that it's not even worth asking if everything in Ratner's life really happened so fatefully or if certain episodes have been enhanced for dramatic effect (like that "chance" meeting with Simmons that maybe, just maybe, was carefully engineered on Ratner's part). It's a good story, and Ratner is nothing if not a born storyteller.
For the record, Brett Ratner doesn't particularly care whether you take him seriously or not. At least he says he doesn't, and I tend to believe him. It's one of Ratner's most appealing traits, actually — a lack of pretense and a sense of comfort inside his own skin that one all too rarely encounters in a business where every comic actor wants to be taken seriously, every agent is actually a producer, indie directors hanker to try their hand on big-studio projects, and George Lucas says what he really wants to do is make small, personal art movies.
"He doesn't have a consumed sense of self-importance — which I think, by comparison to other people who are similarly successful is, if not unique, at least unusual," says Toback. And indeed, when you talk to Ratner, you never feel that he's putting on an act or trying to convince you he's something that he's not. He's one of those people for whom the expression "high on life" seems to have been invented — which, in Ratner's case, may be the literal truth, given that this confessed party boy swears off alcohol and all drugs (including coffee). Can Ratner be brash? Certainly. Does he enjoy being the center of attention? Without question. Does he, during one of our meetings, receive a party invite from Paris Hilton on his iPhone? I'd be lying if I said otherwise. But he's the first to poke fun at himself, and the last thing he seems interested in is wasting any time countering his detractors.
"The answer could be, 'They're all jealous,' or, 'They're all envious,' or, 'They don't really get me,'" says Ratner. "People criticize movies that are in the pop culture, but that's who I am. The thing about the Defamer guy is that he'd be much worse if I let it bother me, if I called him up and said, 'If you write one more thing about me ... ' I simply don't care."
What does matter to Ratner is that his films seem expressive of his personality. "The directors I admire, like the Coen brothers and Scorsese — they're in their films," he says. So too is Ratner in his, for anyone who wants to find him. Perhaps not so much in X-Men: The Last Stand, the noisiest and least necessary in a series whose popularity has eluded me since Day One. But Ratner is everywhere in Money Talks, in the underrated caper picture After the Sunset, and (perhaps most of all) in the Rush Hour movies. He's there in the preponderance of classic R&B and hip-hop on their soundtracks; in their exuberant celebrations of beautiful women, fast cars and other assorted bling; and in their conscious homages to the movies that made Ratner want to become a director in the first place.
Like Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, he's an unrepentant '70s nostalgia junkie who cites the late Hal Ashby as his favorite filmmaker and who — against the wishes of the studio — hired film composer Lalo Schifrin (Dirty Harry, Enter the Dragon) to work on Money Talks and four of his subsequent features.
But Ratner's style is equally informed by the iconic action comedies of the 1980s — movies like 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run that Ratner saw in the company of his maternal grandfather, a Cuban-born Jew whose broken English made him an ideal spectator for stories primarily told through visual means. As much as anything he would eventually learn at NYU, those films gave Ratner his appreciation for snappy comic banter and clean, concise action executed with a minimum of editing, camera movement and visual effects. Today, it's that old-school approach that distinguishes Ratner's movies from those of Bay, McG and the other prominent music-video alumni whose attention-deficient aesthetics have become the common denominator of the 21st-century blockbuster.
"In an action movie, I don't want to move the camera too much, because the movement should be within the frame," Ratner says. "The same goes for comedy: You don't want to push in for a joke; it's plenty in a medium shot. Watch my jokes; they're never in close-up. If the audience feels the camera, it's horrible."
A week after my initial visit, the Rush Hour 3 shoot has relocated to Stage 16 of the Culver Studios, where production designer Ed Verreaux's elaborate replica of the Jules Verne restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower is strewn with broken chairs, tableware and other evidence of the climactic fight sequence that takes place here. Parts of the scene were already shot at the actual location, where limited access and France's restrictive 35-hour work week greatly hampered progress. Today, the movie's Asian villainess, played by Japanese actress Youki Kudoh (Memoirs of a Geisha), is standing on a beam outside the restaurant's windows, framed against a cycloramic backdrop of the Paris cityscape. In her hands, she holds a rope that suspends the Chinese actress Jingchu Zhang, who is making her American acting debut as Rush Hour 3's kidnapped damsel-in-distress — a grown-up version of the Chinese ambassador's daughter whose kidnapping set the first Rush Hour in motion. Ratner has good notes for Kudoh, who keeps missing her mark at a key moment in the scene. When she gets it right, he gives her a big hug.
As the crew prepares the next setup, Ratner tells me that, not unlike the James Bond movies, the Rush Hour series is governed by certain inviolable mandates. One of them, as with Bond, is "a hot girl as a villain and a hot girl as an ally." Another is location, location, location. "Because these are fish-out-of-water comedies, you need to be in a place where the language is not the [characters'] first language," he says. "In the first Rush Hour, Jackie came to L.A. and he was the fish-out-of-water. In the second one, Chris went to Hong Kong. This time, where was the best opportunity for comedy? We could have gone to Moscow — that might have worked." But France, says Ratner, with its historically knotty love-hate relationship with America: "That was the perfect place for comedy."
If the Rush Hour series now feels like a well-oiled machine, however, its path to the big screen was one of those chronologies of false starts, radical overhauls and bruised egos more commonly known as a season in development hell. In fact, when writer Ross LaManna's spec script for Rush Hour first came across the desk of producer Arthur Sarkissian, it wasn't a comedy at all, but rather a high-concept action thriller (with overtones of Speed) about a Chinese cop and an American FBI agent (of unspecified ethnicity) searching for a WMD that is being transported through L.A. traffic during — you guessed it — the worst rush hour of the year. Sarkissian attached himself as a producer and took the script to Disney, where production executive Mike Stenson was looking for a project that could potentially pair Jackie Chan with an American star. So Stenson bought Rush Hour, commissioned a major rewrite by Stakeout screenwriter Jim Kouf and began to envision a buddy action-comedy starring Chan and . . . Martin Lawrence.
After all that, Disney put the project into turnaround, sparking a bidding war among rival studios and legal actions between Sarkissian and another producer. It was only when Rush Hour landed at New Line — the one company willing to greenlight the movie, no questions asked — that Ratner took the reins. It was Ratner, everyone agrees, who replaced Martin Lawrence with Chris Tucker and brought in a relatively unknown screenwriter named Jeff Nathanson (who would go on to write Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal and the fourth Indiana Jones movie for Steven Spielberg) to punch up the script. And it was Ratner, crucially, who flew halfway around the world to persuade the skeptical Chan — who had effectively sworn off American moviemaking after a few disastrous experiences in the 1980s — to give Hollywood another try. A week later, Ratner had his answer: Chan would make the film.
In her 1969 essay "Trash, Art, and the Movies," Pauline Kael wrote that "There is so much talk now about the art of film that we may be in danger of forgetting that most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art," and surely the two Rush Hour movies are easily enough dismissed if you're the sort of filmgoer looking for art with a capital "A." They're airy and light and completely insubstantial, but they're also whirligigs of deft action and precision comic timing, and they use Chan — the most physically gifted screen comedian of the sound era — better than any movie he has made in America before or since. That is, in no small measure, because Ratner — a childhood martial arts enthusiast — allowed Chan to choreograph the fight sequences in the actor's patented Hong Kong style (where pillows, tablecloths and other practical objects become makeshift weapons). The director did have a few basic ground rules, though.
"Our collaboration is interesting," says Ratner, "because Jackie is a genius, but if you let him, he'll design a 30-minute fight scene and it will go on and on and on. My job is to make sure that whatever he does, it's helping to drive the story forward."
"In Hollywood, they care more about comedy, relationship and so many things before action stunts," concurs Chan. "In Hong Kong, we go straight into stunts and action, but in America sometimes that's too much. So, now I'm making a film half and half — take some good things from Hollywood and some good things from Asia."
The end results are the kind of nearly perfect buddy movies often attempted but rarely achieved (for sterling counter-examples, see Nothing to Lose, Blue Streak, Showtime and any Lethal Weapon picture with a number higher than 2 — or, on second thought, don't). When Ratner tells you that, among the congratulatory messages he received in the wake of the first Rush Hour's release, one came from Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme (who cut his teeth on similarly industrious genre fare back at the Roger Corman factory), it's hardly a surprise.
And what of Rush Hour 3? I'm happy to report that it is everything one could hope a movie with that title would be. It's fast and funny, with several superb action set-pieces (including a breakneck car chase down the Champs-Elysees, and the Eiffel Tower finale) and a scene-stealing performance by French actor Yvan Attal as a sad-sack cabbie with daydreams of becoming an American action-movie hero. In a summer movie season rife with "3"s (and one big, bloated "13"), it has no numeric equal. Best of all, at a time when a trip to the local multiplex increasingly results in a long day's journey into night, Rush Hour 3 has the good sense to get on and off the screen in just over 90 minutes. That's another Ratner-issued mandate, in fact — even if it means that certain entire scenes (including, as it happens, the one at the Paris—Le Bourget airport) end up on the cutting-room floor.
"Sitting through all these movies this summer, I'm like 'Fuck! What is going on? Why are they so long?," Ratner tells me during a break from the Rush Hour 3 sound mix, a few days after I attend a rough-cut screening. "These scenes can end up on the DVD. Why put them in the movie?" He prefers, he says, for his audiences to exit the theater with smiles on their faces rather than pained looks of weariness and exhaustion. "Leave the audience wanting more, you know?"
This is the first time Ratner and I have sat down to talk at length, away from the hubbub of the set. We're supposed to have a couple of hours, but after 30 minutes he's called back to the mixing stage. So I go with him, and throughout the night and into the wee morning hours, I watch as Ratner — flanked by his sound mixers, Davis, Sarkissian, Stern and Rush Hour 3 editor Mark Helfrich — raises and lowers music levels by as little as one half of a decibel, insists on changes to the timbre of gunshots, and identifies split-second moments at which the movie's soundtrack slips out of sync. It's an object lesson for anyone who thinks Ratner is less than a deeply committed, dedicated movie craftsman with a sharp eye for detail.
Whenever he can, Ratner ducks out for a few minutes and we resume our conversation. Of his widespread image as a social butterfly, Ratner says it's something that gives him pleasure but which he also views as a professional responsibility: "If I start staying at my house and never leaving, I'm going to lose touch. I'm at the center of pop culture right now not because I have some big secret — I'm just out there. I'm interacting with people, and I know how people are thinking — whether it's Lindsay Lohan or whoever. It doesn't matter if you respect these people or not: They're are part of pop culture, which is youth culture. I'm not doing it strategically. I happen to love it."
Of the recent addition of Democratic Party booster to his résumé, he says he's merely trying to set a philanthropic example for others to follow. "It's not about Hillary, or Obama or Edwards," he says. "I just want a Democratic president."
Finally, I ask Ratner the question that has been hovering awkwardly in the air ever since we first met — on the topic that earns him the most grief from the media and which seems to blind some people from seeing him in more than one dimension: I ask the man who has dated, among others, actress Rebecca Gayheart, tennis pro Serena Williams and (most recently) Romanian supermodel Alina Puscau about the women in his life.
"I like women," he says sheepishly, as if the world didn't already know. Then he elaborates: "Either you have a thing for women or you don't, because my grandfather has been with my grandmother for 60 years and he's never even looked at another woman. He's not interested. He's happier with one woman. I'm a different person. I'm a kid in a candy store."
"There are certain people who can get away with a reputation for flirtation and running around — the paradigm being George Clooney," says Toback, whose own reputation as a man about town was once satirized in an infamous Spy magazine article. "But very few directors can get away with that, and most of them are cagey enough to conceal what they're really doing. I think that just to enjoy a single life as Brett does is a serious detriment to being taken seriously. It's as if to be sexually curious and freewheeling implies some form of retardation instead of some form of advanced or enlightened consciousness, which is what it just as often is."
Enlightened consciousness or not, Ratner says he was probably most successful with the fairer sex before he himself was a success, "back when I was a skinny teenager, when I was cute." Now, he says, "Things are more strategic. I'm not Warren Beatty, obviously, where I'm the good-looking gorgeous guy and success doesn't matter. With me, it's not like, 'Oh, look at him, I want to fuck him.' It's more like, 'Who's that fat Jewish guy trying to talk to me?'"
So Ratner relies on his sense of humor, his gift of gab and a natural ease in social situations that many more conventionally good-looking people lack. "The whole idea of physical attractiveness in relation to sexual fulfillment is, while obvious, also overestimated," says Toback. "What's appealing about people is quite often mysterious, physically and otherwise. Brett's not someone who wishes that he looked like someone else, which can be very unappetizing. I call it the toupee syndrome: Who exactly is supposed to believe that that's your real hair?"
Back on the mixing stage, the end credits of Rush Hour 3 are finally beginning to roll, accompanied by an original song in which Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo raps to the beat of Lalo Schifrin's brassy orchestral score. There's still some fine-tuning to be done, but at this point everyone — even the indefatigable Ratner — is dead on their feet. They'll reconvene in the morning, after which Ratner will set off with Tucker on a multicity promotional tour. And after that, there will be another movie — possibly a Hugh Hefner bio-pic, possibly a heist comedy teaming Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, or, who knows, maybe a Rush Hour 4.
In the meantime, Ratner's public image seems poised for a bit of rehabilitation, thanks to a flattering recent Vanity Fair profile and a special issue of Variety, headlined "Billion Dollar Director." But Bob Shaye, who says he and Ratner are once again on fine terms, warns the director about putting too much stock in what he reads in the papers.
"I think there's a very dangerous mindset that invades a lot of people who are successful, whether it's hubris or, as a psychiatrist friend of mine has characterized it, 'acquired situational narcissism,'" says Shaye. "As one of his mentors, I've cautioned Brett a lot about believing his own press — be it praiseful or critical. In both cases, you have to remember . . . let me give you a metaphor: In ancient Rome, when a General came back from winning a great campaign and walked down the red carpet to meet Ceasar, and thousands of people were standing along the border screaming and shouting and bands were playing, there was someone whose job it was to walk next to the General and whisper in his ear, 'You're only a man, you're only a man.' Brett is only a young man at the end of the day, and he will mature, I think and I expect, with great humility."
As Ratner and I walk to his car — no screaming minions, no brass band — he tells me that he feels like he's lived a blessed and happy life, and that thinking about it gives him a touch of anxiety, as if he were waiting for the other shoe to drop, or for his carriage to turn back into a pumpkin. "All I ever dreamed about was being a director," Ratner says. "And now I'll see people I haven't seen for 20 years and they'll be like, 'You told me you were going to be a movie director when you were a kid.' The only thing I regret ..."
His voice trails off, and then Ratner starts talking about The Family Man, his 2000 romantic fantasy about a successful New York investment banker and ladies man (played by Nicolas Cage) who is offered a momentary glimpse of a parallel life in which he has less material wealth, but is happily married to his high school sweetheart and is the father of two young children. (It was, as usual with Ratner, a popular hit and a critical turkey.) At the time he was making the film, Ratner says, he was in the process of breaking up with Gayheart, whom he'd dated since film school, who supported him in the early days of his career, and to whom he was once engaged. Then he gets back to what he'd started to tell me before, about the one thing he regrets in his life — or not even that he regrets, but about which he wishes. Like Cage's character in the film, he'd love to get a glimpse of what things would have been like if he'd stayed with Gayheart and had kids who, theoretically, could have been teenagers by now.
It's then that I realize why Ratner tells people that The Family Man is his most personal film. I also realize that, even after the four months I've spent drifting in and out of his orbit, Ratner remains to me a bevy of contradictions — the critically lambasted moviemaker who has passed on ostensibly more prestigious projects (including Memoirs of a Geisha and Ocean's Eleven), the alleged narcissist who says he'd do anything for his friends and who recently moved his grandparents into his guest house, and the tabloid playboy who may be a closeted monogamist. Is he a cad or a mensch? The world's heavyweight box-office champion or a future Oscar winner? Is he all of those things at once or none of them at all? Or is Brett Ratner, like so many of the rest of us, still figuring out just exactly who he is?
"Am I Orson Welles?" he asks. "Obviously not. But 50 years from now, who knows how, as a person, I'll have grown. I've already changed, from being a 26-year-old kid to a 38-year-old guy — I'm not a man yet, really. But as I get older, who knows how my experiences and my knowledge, this past 12 years making movies, how that's all going to affect the movies that I make? I know that the life I lived from 16 to 26 allowed me to make a movie like Rush Hour, so now let's see ..."
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