Hearing Martin Scorsese talk about movies is an enlightening experience. He is a director who knows cinema. Scorsese is not simply a cinephile (like Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino) or a technician (like Kubrick); he is not a man who collects tidbits of style, knowledge or equipment as if they were rare stamps. Scorsese is a director who loves and lives cinema; it is his lifeblood, and without it one gets the impression he would simply cease to exist, rather than fade into video store obscurity. More importantly, this is reflected in every film Scorsese has made, from his intimate portrait of New York youth in Who’s That Knocking At My Door to the fast-living, smooth-talking, world-changing corruption in The Wolf of Wall Street. Through it all, each character represents a small – but vital – portion of Scorsese’s soul, as if he’s confessing some eternal truth he keeps hidden from the world.
Then there’s Jimbo Lee, a director so inept, so soulless, so devoid of film knowledge and basic human psychology that it’s fitting he chose the world’s worst musical performer to act in his directorial debut Making the Rules. For Lee, clichés are too intellectual, subtext unnecessary, and all emotion is reduced to silent nods and quiet looks one expects from the lobotomized. Say what you will about disasters like Manos: The Hands of Fate or The Room, but at the very least they had vision; be it to win a bet or to create the next Great Human Drama, both films had a sense of purpose (if not passion) that is the fundamental first step in filmmaking. This step is what’s missing from Making the Rules.
The synopsis: Jaime Pressly is Abby, a middle-brow chef who can still afford prime California real estate with her handy-man husband Matt (Tygh Runyan). Abby cuts her hand at work, leaving her incapacitated at work and shiftless at home. She grows irritated with Matt, who spends a good deal of time building a deck on their hillside property. Abby’s free time leads to a fling with ex-boyfriend Shaun (Robin Thicke), terrible advice from best friend Becca (Joey Lauren Adams), and even more terrible, New Age-y advice from her mother (Frances Conroy).
Hearing Jimbo Lee speak on the DVD commentary and the making-of interview, it’s apparent his interest in his own story (and filmmaking in general) goes no further than that synopsis. He talks of being inspired by Eric Rohmer, the French New Wave director who favored thought over action, but considering how empty Making the Rules is (running at a mercifully short 78 minutes) I’m left to believe Lee’s brain somehow disappeared during writing sessions, leaving only the vaguest sketches of character and plot. As I write this, I’m still trying to figure out what Abby’s crisis really is: she has a large house, a hot husband who takes her to trendy cafes, a job she loves that even pays the bills, and an injury that allows her to take time off work and sit on the beach all day. Granted, filmmakers love pointing out how the people who seemingly have it all actually do not, but Abby’s chief complaint is how Matt broke the washing machine (he didn’t really). Sadly, Abby’s life devolves into a nightmare of lunch with her mother, unrealistically clean laundromats and – worst of all – sex with Robin Thicke.
As far as male/female relationship stories go, I didn’t go into Making the Rules expecting Scenes From a Marriage. I wasn’t even expecting While You Were Sleeping, but looking back I would have preferred a generic romantic comedy format; there would have been a series of helpful plot points to count off, making the film less eternal. Lee, however, is attempting a character study, but he mistakes silence for depth, long pauses for dramatic emphasis, and blank stares for existential contemplation. The actors seem shackled by Lee’s inability to direct; delivery is monotone and there’s enough dead air in between every actor’s lines for a musical interlude. During the final confrontation, Abby and Matt are seated on a couch while she drones on about her love for him. Poor Matt, instead of looking into her eyes and playing off his costar, he gazes down and self-consciously toward the camera, the look in his eyes filled not so much with sadness but rather awkward confusion, no doubt thinking: “Is this director really making me do this?”
Looking at the IMDB page, I was shocked to learn Making the Rules cost four and a half million dollars to produce, yet it is still ghastly even as a straight-to-DVD product. The interiors look fake and the exteriors look as though the crew shot at high noon to save money on lighting. There is a hideous glare on everything, even the plants in Abby’s garden. And as mean as it may seem, my inner John Simon can’t help but mention the actors look like they went without a makeup artist the entire shoot. Their skin looks sun burnt, leathery and wrinkled, and their hair seems to have been styled at Supercuts. Robin Thicke appears to have been properly primped, but, well, he still just looks like a penis. There are so many more talented, less apathetic filmmakers today who could have benefited from that money. Back in 1985, Martin Scorsese shot After Hours – one of his finest movies – for four and a half million dollars. What a difference two decades make.