The Popcorn King

Rush Hour 3 director Brett Ratner has been called a fauxteur, a womanizer and, worse, over budget. Why you should take him seriously anyway.

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."

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