by Jack Sommersby
An involving first-half gives way to a tedious follow-through.After making a smashing, sexy debut alongside Christain Slater in the 1990 teen pic Pump up the Volume, Samantha Mathis' career should have taken off into the stratosphere. Spunky, beautiful, charismatic, and immensely talented, she seemed to have all the makings of a full-fledged movie star. Alas, her star failed to rightfully ascend, though certainly not from a lack of trying. In Nora Ephron's This is My Life, Mathis effortlessly stole the show from Julie Kavner as her wise-beyond-her-years daughter; in Super Mario Bros. (an unfortunate endeavor), she was completely fetching and enchanting as John Leguizomo's heroic love interest; Rob Reiner's The American President afforded her a small but plum part as Michael Douglas' presidential assistant; John Woo's Broken Arrow re-teamed her with Volume co-star Slater to fine effect as his tough-as-nails partner; and in Peter Bogdonovich's The Thing Called Love, she managed to make something genuine out of the cliched role of an aspiring Nashville songwriter.
"Samantha Mathis is Sexy and Superb -- the Film Isn't"
After these standout performances, however, her luminous blip seemed to disappear from the almighty Hollywood radar. Her post-1996 projects were mostly obscure ones, like the excellent British comedy/drama Jack & Sarah, where she held her own against the magnetic, scenery-chewing Richard E. Grant. And while her nifty, inventive turn as Christain Bale's pill-popping mistress in American Psycho garnered her some attention, apparently it wasn't nearly enough, because a couple of years ago, Mathis hit rock-bottom. That's right -- she was relegated to the unspeakable horrors of (gasp!) prime time television. As an Ally McBeal-inspired, sexually frustrated lawyer in the placid hour-long series First Years, you simply felt like weeping over her valiant attempt to shine and glide over the gruesome mediocrity of it all. (Luckily, the show was given the boot after just a few episodes, leaving sub-par actresses like Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Aniston free rein over the Prime Time Dreck Arena.) Which brings us up to date, with writer/director Russell Degrazia's Attraction.
Likely, you've never even heard of Attraction. Big surprise. After showings at film festivals in Los Angeles and Canada, it played in only one cineplex in nearby Dallas and made its debut on home video a mere month later. At first, I was baffled as to why TriMark Pictures saw fit to even release the damn thing; however, all came clear when a weekly publication ran an article on its filmmaker, who, as it turned out, was a former Dallasite. Whether Attraction was actually released in other major cities I do not know, but it didn't last more than a week at the AMC Grand 24, with less-than-sparkling reviews hindering its already dubious presence. I'd be happy to report that TriMark went the chickenshit route by refusing to confidently back it, but this would be living in denial, for blindly championing a film you know to be unsuccessful just because it stars an actor or actress you're enamored of is, quite simply, wrong (not to mention, asinine). While freely admitting that Samantha Mathis is undoubtedly the most glowing asset the film has going for it, and despite some occasional moments of interest, Attraction emerges as one muddled mess of a psychological thriller.
Set in Los Angeles, the film first introduces us to the character of Matthew (played by Matthew Settle) as he sits waiting, a wee bit agitated, in a diner. Handsome and in his late twenties, adorned with one of those perfectly attractive three-day stubbles only make-up artists know how to maintain throughout a film shoot, he's soon joined by a gorgeous blonde, Liz (the gorgeous but vapid Gretchen Mol), and, at first, we think this is a couple meeting for a date. No, no. It turns out that Liz is quite the upset one, deriding Matthew, who she broke up with a few months ago, for stalking her. You see, Liz lives only a couple of blocks away, and Matthew has made a rather creepy practice out of parking his car across the street from her apartment, walking to the diner for coffee and, after getting sustained by caffeine, returning to the car and watching and, on some occasions, sleeping outside her place.
After this stern talking-to, Matthew nevertheless follows Liz home, knocks on her door a few times and softly pleads to be granted entry. It doesn't work. And after a few more flat-out refusals, he snaps, starts violently kicking at her door, but an adjoining neighbor scares him away -- but not before Matthew puts his fist through the man's window. It's a startling scene, and not just due to the unexpected ferocity to it all, but because the violence seems to be plausibly arising out of the wounded angst of an apparently troubled individual. Later that night, Matthew goes to a bar to cool off, and winds up attracting the attention of Corey (Samantha Mathis), a B-movie actress who just got back from a dreadful shoot in Utah ("We shot up there for two months, and I could never be sure whether there would be film in the camera or not.") and, who, by chance, is a good friend of Liz's. Matthew, who sees this as a good way to get back at her, claims that he hasn't seen Liz in months, and he and Corey go back to her place and wind up having far-from-satisfactory sex (he premature ejaculates). Not surprisingly, he doesn't stay the night.
The next morning, Matthew, who doubles as a magazine columnist and late-night self-help DJ (go figure!), gets some consoling from his editor and friend, Garrett (Tom Everett Scott), who, aside from also being a friend to Liz, has taken to sleeping with her, as well. Understandably, Garrett tries to play both corners, but his efforts with Matthew turn out to be futile, because, as we learn or already know, it's totally useless in trying to convey and impart logic and reason onto someone who's already made up their mind that their way is the only way, that any viewpoint contradictory to theirs poses a danger to their well-being, of keeping and depriving them of their supposed destinies ("Liz isn't scared of me", Matthew reasons, "She's scared of who she is with me."). On the air, Matthew is insightful and uncannily perceptive in tackling his callers' relationship troubles; in his own life, though, he's like a closed book, oblivious and damning to anyone and anything not already written in his rules of right and wrong.
Instead of insultingly slamming these various points home for a presumably IQ-depleted audience, Russell Degrazier, (whose directorial debut this is) tactfully and respectfully insinuates, allowing them to glide by rather than thump us on the head. We're expected to pay attention, to read between the lines and the psychological barriers to get our own reading on things. The actions we're witnessing may seem clear-cut and obvious in intent on the surface, but it's the motivating factors, what's really going on underneath, that's purposefully obscured. At first, Attraction promises complexity. Unfortunately, contrivance soon permeates this initially fascinating (if not altogether tantalizing) surface, and the film soon starts a downward spiral.
Because Liz turns out to be both repelled and flattered by Matthew's insistent attention, it's possible that the police wouldn't have been summoned to her place that night (you have to conveniently discard her neighbor from memory, though), but when she tells Corey all about the stalking, and Corey, who thinks Liz is simply jealous (which she is, kind of), brushes this off as nothing, it just doesn't wash. Reasoning clouded by the almighty orgasm? Judging from Matthew's dire performance in the sack, not likely. There's a gap in between Corey's sustained infatuation with Matthew and his gradual affection of her. At first, his motivation for being with her is clear, but later on down the line, when we need to see that Matthew has changed, that he's honestly fallen in love with Corey and learned to dial it down a few notches with Liz, the film reveals a hollow core due to the lack of dramatic underpinnings -- there's nothing identifiable to support any of this. It also doesn't help that Settle, who plays Matthew, lacks the internal force and variety to appropriately vivify.
But this is nothing compared to Attraction's second half, which turns so ludicrous and disjointed that you might assume the film's supervising editor had it in for Degrazier and sporadically switched up the scenes while the director was out getting his fix at the local Starbucks. Out of nowhere, Garrett, ever the docile character before this, starts acting a bit kooky. After setting up an informal interview with Matthew and a local psychology professor, which results in Matthew storming out, and seeing just how more nervous and paranoid Liz is becoming, he starts following Matthew and Corey around when they're together. Corey spots his intense staring right away, which makes her increasingly uneasy and Matthew downright furious ("How does it feel to be watched?", Garrett snidely taunts). A few scenes later, Corey is heckled and humiliated by Garrett as she bravely stands naked in front of a packed theater, trying like hell to give conviction to her dreadful lines in an equally dreadful play. It's the best scene in the film, and not just because the sight of Mathis' breasts is to totally die for, but because the violence inflicted here is directly emotional rather than blatantly physical. Still, Garrett's emotional transitions are muddled.
Degrazier comes off like a writer who leaps before he looks, indicative of someone who is clear to himself about what he wants to achieve but at a bit of a loss as how to fluidly and coherently translate that onto the silver screen. Sometimes this happens when an artist has harbored a deeply personal project in their head for so long that, when it actually comes time to film, they've mentally replayed the story so many times to themselves that what may seem organic and seamless to them may in fact lack a few narrative stepping stones for the audience to satisfactorily get from one story development to the next. Too much of Garrett's impeding mayhem just comes out of nowhere, as if Degrazier, under pressure from the studio (unlikely), needed a bad guy, an outright villain to embody and make clear his dark intentions.
The spotty writing is to blame, no doubt, but blame should also be levied against Tom Everett Scott, who plays Garrett. He was terminally bland in That Thing You Do!, blander still in An American Werewolf In Paris, and (if this can be believed) even blander here. Scott is not only wooden with line readings but is physically inexpressive, as well -- not the most formidable qualities in an actor who's been hired to convey homicidal undercurrents. Alas, Garrett, like the film, has no real dramatic core, so the horrific event that transpires in the last quarter of the film has no weight, and a fatal lack of power. Dark impulses are supposedly circulating throughout Garrett, but Scott is so transparent and lifeless that you just can't accept there's even blood running through the character's veins.
As if this major flub with Garrett wasn't damaging enough, Attraction finally puts itself out of its collective misery by going unbelievably banal in the final ten minutes, where Degrazier seemed to be in a hell of a rush to tidy up all his loose ends. After Liz winds up in intensive care after a horrible beating, Matthew, who, given his past relations with her and no alibi, is jailed, and Corey (for reasons too inane to go into) assumes that he's guilty, with Garrett smiling ever so lovingly at the grandness of it all, plausibility takes a back seat to contrivance. It's up to Corey to deduct who the culprit really is, and how she finally deduces who, how the guilty party finally gets theirs in the end, and how the innocent one winds up being cleared, was way too far-fetched for my tastes.
Overall, Attraction isn't a bad film -- it gamely tries to function as something other than a typical psychological thriller. There's a real feeling of shared intimacy between Degrazier and his characters, and with his actors, too, who he's afforded some reasonably snappy dialogue. In an interview, Degrazier came across as a sensible and intelligent man who, I can believe, tried his darndest to make the best film he knew possible. But his reach unfortunately exceeded his grasp, which is certainly a fault but one that's easy to forgive -- if anything, it's a hell of a lot more commendable than some typical Hollywood hack's low aspiration of hanging easy-to-read labels on characters and spoon-feeding information to the audience, which, tragically, is shaping up more and more as the more the rule than the exception.
As for Samantha Mathis, she is (as ever) fabulous, never once taking a wrong step by overstating a single viable emotion. She manages to take a two-dimensional character teeming with inconsistencies and breathes life, shades of feeling, and a whole lot more believability than it has any right to possess. Sexy without straining to be, touching without ever going emotive on us, and commanding without showing the effort, Mathis is sensational in a film that isn't all that deserving of her. I do hope that the Agent Fairy finds her more high-profile projects in the future, so you, my fellow readers, can see with your own eyes how fabulous she really is, instead of having to rely on thine own printed words to persuade.Samantha displays her to-die-for boobies. They're the best, uh, "assets" to the film.
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originally posted: 12/27/02 14:01:57