Just when it was getting easier to tolerate Brett Ratner as a perfectly average director with an above-average sense of self-promotion, the very bright and learned and, to the best of my knowledge, sane film critic Scott Foundas had to go and turn the libertine into a cause. In an unusually lengthy profile for LA Weekly, Foundas departed from conventional critical wisdom and declared the much maligned Ratner "a talented filmmaker who deserves to be taken seriously". Based on what, I’m still not sure; Foundas forgot to defend his thesis with any concrete examples of Ratner’s behind-the-camera expertise.
While this uncalled for coronation elicited mild dismissals from the likes of Glenn Kenny and Jeffrey Wells (who did an amusing about-face upon reading The Advocate’s profile, in which Ratner unashamedly copped to getting fellated by transvestites on occasion), there was no real furor. Even when Anne Thompson laid down some cover fire for Foundas on her Variety-housed blog, no one took the bait; Ratner, for all his failings as a filmmaker, wasn’t worth the headache. The party line from the critical establishment now seems to be "Let’s just hope Scott got laid per superlative".
Whatever. I’m still miffed. First of all, why demand that Ratner be taken seriously as a filmmaker when his movies, with two horrendous exceptions (The Family Man and Red Dragon), are intentionally ephemeral? I had a great time with Money Talks, a pretty good time with Rush Hour and didn’t ask for my money back after Rush Hour 2; that I can’t remember a single gag or action sequence is beside the point. The movies succeeded on their own modest terms. Why complain that they aren’t distinguished technically when their deficiencies didn’t detract from my enjoyment? That’d be like ripping Hard to Kill for not being Serpico.
The closest Foundas comes to making a specific case for Ratner arrives at the midpoint of the panegyric:
"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."
All of this could very well be true, but remove the bit about the soundtracks – which reveal nothing more than a pedestrian taste for popular music – and Foundas could just as easily be talking about the late soft-core king, Andy Sidaris (best not to speak ill of the recently deceased). Two paragraphs later, Ratner’s preference for practical action and lengthy-ish takes is cited as if the preference itself is proof of actual ability. The best I can say about the big action set pieces in the Rush Hour movies is that Ratner must’ve covered them competently because I don’t recall objecting to their presentation. If anything, I was just happy to hear American audiences gasping at Jackie Chan’s exploits, even though the stunts were layups compared to, say, Chan’s bruising Harold Lloyd impersonation in Project A.
But while Ratner caught Chan on his downward trajectory, he definitely latched onto Chris Tucker’s star at a most propitious moment. Tucker was best known as "the annoying guy from The Fifth Element" when he teamed with Charlie Sheen in Money Talks. But it was Tucker’s energy and gift for endless gab that turned the picture into a surprise end-of-summer-’97 hit. After a brief-but-brilliant supporting turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown later that year, Tucker appeared to be the goods. Since then, he’s made three movies, all titled Rush Hour. And his gifts have atrophied badly. But this doesn’t stop Foundas from stating, "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." Substitute "has" for "did", and this might not be the most ludicrous sentence I’ve read all week. Again, the story here is not Tucker’s inherent talent but his squandering of it.
For a guy who likes to boast that he’s ahead of the curve pop culture-wise, it’s odd that Ratner would still be relying on an out-to-pasture comic like Chris Tucker for a seemingly sure-fire hit. It’s also inexplicable that Ratner would be retreating to a moldy franchise when only New Line honcho Bob Shaye has been lobbying for a third Rush Hour picture. (Am I wrong in thinking Rush Hour 3 the least wanted sequel since Beverly Hills Cop 3?) After directing the highest grossing X-Men film to date, Ratner could’ve easily taken a risk or, god forbid, done something relatively fresh, but here he is performing hackwork eight pictures into his career. And Foundas wants us to take this guy seriously?
If you want a window into the Ratner "genius", Jeff Nathanson – a good screenwriter who shouldn’t be pilloried for his paycheck cashing duties on Rush Hour 3 – grants you entree:
“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.”
Ah, the fallacy of the exacting director. I’ve hung out on the set of two Judd Apatow movies, and watched him casually capture comedy gold without working through lunch. When Ratner gets a moment as memorable as any of the random outtakes from the DVD of The 40-Year-Old Virgin (come to think of it, I’d like to hear Jackie mangling "Alligator Fuckhouse"), I’ll excuse his excesses. Until then, I’ll figure he just doesn’t know what he wants (aside from a blow job).
But this is just piling on. Ratner doesn’t deserve this kind of scrutiny, nor has he really demanded it (unless you want to consider hanging out with Warren Beatty, Robert Evans and Jack Nicholson evidence of a yearning to be taken seriously). He’s learned from his mistakes; he seems to get that remaking John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a bad idea, and will instead concentrate on dramatizing the bacchanalian life of Hugh Hefner. It could be that he’s out of his depth here as well, but, as Hollywood’s internationally recognized Man of Leisure, directing this picture is a fait accompli. And if all Foundas has been doing is setting himself up to get unfettered access to this set… well, bravo, sir.