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Laws of Attraction   C+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Howitt
Writers: Aline Brosh McKenna, Robert Harling
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Julianne Moore, Parker Posey, Michael Sheen, Frances Fisher, Nora Dunn.

Review by Rob Vaux

Laws of Attraction balances between two perfectly opposing poles: a central couple who utterly enchant us, and a supporting structure that completely fails to capitalize on them. Too often, it relies on the wearying pattern of fill-in-the-blank romantic comedies while adding new elements that range from the perfunctory to the actively irritating. Without stars Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore it would be unpalatable. But every time it threatens to devour our goodwill, the names above the credits find a way to keep us watching. Enjoyment of the film depends on how much one is willing to tolerate for their sake.

The concept is solid: if you want to base a comedy around an argumentative couple, why not make them lawyers? Better yet, why not make them divorce lawyers, whose constant exposure to romantic death rattles has all but smothered their belief in love? Intolerable Cruelty took a slapstick approach to the same topic. Laws of Attraction tones down the buffoonery in favor of more character-driven laughs -- a wise choice considering the actors at their disposal. Brosnan's Daniel Rafferty is an unkempt grandstander, relying on spur-of-the-moment inspiration to carry his clients. Moore's Audrey Woods is hard-working and over-prepared, leaving no possibility to chance. They sell us because both performers invest so much into their respective characters. Brosnan easily reworks his James Bond charm into a more rumpled figure here, and gives Rafferty a plausible sense of honesty beneath his shyster's tricks. Moore has the more difficult task, as Woods' uptight insecurities make her the natural straight man. She responds with an assured performance that exudes sympathy and intelligence while still having great fun wiping the pie off her face.

The two also have good chemistry, though often of the cobra/mongoose variety as befits their station. They first cross swords during a cantankerous hearing, where Rafferty quietly pinpoints Woods' secret junk food addiction before unraveling her client's duplicity. The spark between them is palpable, which riles Woods to no end and sets the stage for future showdowns. Before you know it, the New York legal scene is abuzz with their feisty duels. The script is tilted in Brosnan's favor (Rafferty knows exactly what he wants, while Woods is often playing catch-up) but Moore has a better handle on the banter and gets a nice gal Friday in the form of her perpetually adolescent mother (well-played by Frances Fisher). The growing connection between them comes subtly and with admirable restraint, spiced up by their tart exchanges that amuse without veering into the smug. A few questions about legal ethics arise (can two lawyers sleep together and still serve on opposing sides?), but they're easily dismissed amid the principles' infinite appeal.

While the stars soar, however, the remainder of Laws of Attraction is a decidedly flimsier affair. The subplots and underlying structure are riddled with problems, both in the pacing and the content. The worst involves a high-profile divorce between a petulant rock star (Michael Sheen) and his fashion designer wife (Parker Posey). Their shrieking theatrics are massively unpleasant, and take a turn for the non sequitur with a superfluous trip to Ireland (where a mutually adored castle is up for grabs). Despite a few funny moments, the segue feels completely tacked on, accompanied by an osh-and-begorra Celtic schmaltz that smacks more of tourism brochures than anything relevant on-screen. (One suspects that Brosnan, with executive producer credit, had a hand in showboating his native country.) The final half hour labors as well, forcing the couple's Hepburn-and-Tracy flirtations into a hastily executed marriage gag that never captures the spirit of earlier scenes. From there, the predictable clichés of engineered crises and love finding a way conspire to sap Laws of Attraction of its hard-won credentials.

It's a close call sometimes. Moore has livened up much less promising material and Brosnan's continued endurance as a performer is impressive. They're well-matched, engaging, and clearly enjoy their work. Is that enough to excuse the film's creaks and groans? It depends on how hungry you are for a little old-fashioned romance. Laws of Attraction has it, and does more with it than most of its ilk. But like so many relationships, the excess baggage keeps cropping up... and finally causes too many problems to survive.

Review published 04.30.2004.

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