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.

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.

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