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The Laws of Attraction

Director: Peter Howitt
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Julianne Moore, Parker Posey, Michael Sheen, Nora Dunn, Frances Fisher

(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 30 Apr 2004; 2004)

Scum

Audrey (Julianne Moore) is a smart, successful divorce attorney, employed by a swank firm and respected by her peers. You wouldn’t know this during the first moments of Laws of Attraction, however, as she’s introduced in mid-chastisement by her socialite mother, Sara (Frances Fischer). Really, mom natters, Audrey needs to “make more effort” regarding men. “My skin,” beams the multiply partnered Sara, “is always better when I’m dating.”


Right. It’s soon clear that 35-year-old professional Audrey does not need to be living with her mom or even listening to this admonishment, and yet, there she is, a basket case. (Their peculiar interdependence is underlined by the fact that this “conversation” takes place as Sara aids in Audrey’s illicit recon of a client’s about-to-be-ex-husband’s estate, pretending to be interested in buying the Emperor of Infomercials’ townhouse when really all they need to do is inventory the artwork.) If you need further convincing, consider Exhibit B: when Audrey is flustered by a court procedure, she rushes to the bathroom, where she hides in a stall to wolf down a Hostess Sno Ball.


While it’s possible to read Audrey as struggling with the dilemmas that face so many professional women who read Cosmo, it’s also easy to see her as a victim of script by committee (Aline Brosh McKenna, Karey Kirkpatrick, and Robert Harling). Moore retains her signature radiance here, and shows off her game comic timing (see also, if you must, Evolution), but she’s severely hampered by a screenplay that can’t seem to imagine a brainy woman not in need of emotional rescue. And so, here comes her savior, fellow divorce attorney Daniel Rafferty (Pierce Brosnan), introduced as he’s snoring in his courtroom chair. Indeed, he’s representing the infomercials guy, and his comportment at this moment unnerves Audrey, though she assures her client that they’ve lucked out because “Opposing counsel’s insane.”


She’s right, but he inhabits a universe where his judgments, his desires, and his insights (no matter how obnoxious, self-serving, or willfully blind) are always right, and hers indicate her debilitating neurosis. And so, try as Audrey might to assert her own sense of order—legal, moral, emotional—Daniel’s “insanity” wins out. So, her client in this case turns out to be a sex addict (a little detail left out of the initial information breakdown?)


In another version of this movie, say, George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (1949), or even the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty, Audrey would have some semblance of “equality” with her match (a quaint notion, but not wholly archaic). But this version is all about unevenness. Directed by Peter Howitt (who made Sliding Doors, also, in its way, about a woman’s thorough inability to handle her life), Laws of Attraction appears determined to proceed by the numbers, that is, to marry off the rivals and in the process, educate her as to his wisdom concerning “relationships.”


During a legal function where both are asked to speak on their profession, the opponents-about-to-be-coupled stake out their positions. Where Audrey gently reads her prepared speech, describing divorce as a learning process, a “chance to look at the complex emotional labyrinth that is the human relationship,” Daniel stalks the stage as he addresses a startled crowd: “Lawyers are scum,” he scowls. “Divorce lawyers are the fungus growing beneath the scum.” And with that, he reveals that he’s videotaped Audrey as she was poking around his office (he left the door open, in order to catch her out, just so). She’s horrified, and worse, when she tries to apologize, during the date that ensues, she drinks herself into a one-night-stand. Now she’s mad, embarrassed, and falling in love. She rejects Daniel immediately.


The film takes what seems a very long time to get the couple hooked up, split, reunited, then split and reunited again, by way of a nasty divorce case on which they are on opposite sides, again. When Daniel steals away Audrey’s client, the contrary fashion designer Serena (Parker Posey), Audrey fights back by seeking out the philandering husband, rock star Thorne Jamison (Michael Sheen). Conveniently, the couple fights ferociously over an Irish castle, which means the lawyers must go to said castle to “interview the staff” (this by order of one Judge Abramovitz [Nora Dunn]), and, in the process, drag out the process of their own romance.


While plopped down in the gorgeous countryside (and Brosnan’s favorite location of late), they endure some approximately It Happened One Night-ish road tripping, that is, they begin to like one another all over again. This leads to yet another drunken escapade; the next morning, neither can remember how they came to be wearing wedding rings and sleeping in the same bed. This has all kinds of repercussions, apparently, for their careers as divorce lawyers, and so they agree to pretend to be married back home. Once they move in together, Daniel reveals his supposed adorableness (knowing her affection for Hostess, he bakes her brownies), and Audrey is gradually seduced. Again. This just before the next treachery, leading to another breakup (also known as a “bad patch”), and another reconciliation. Again.


All this back-and-forth is tedious, in part because it means that Audrey and Daniel spend a lot of time together, in montages as well as actual repartee. (Sadly, this leaves less time for Audrey’s exchanges with her mother, the film’s most buoyant; Fisher’s interpretation of decadent harks back to romantic comedies where secondary characters were subtly drawn and clever, rather than broadly buffoonish). Together, the divorce lawyers learn that “you have to fight to save a marriage.” Alone, Audrey learns that she must tolerate dishonesty of a devastating sort, because in this universe, Daniel’s insanity prevails.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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