Writer-director Russell DeGrazier has an unfortunate fondness for underscoring emotional frissons with empty stylistic flourishes -- slo-mo, jump cuts, impressionistic montage, the usual film-brat flash and filigree -- and stale narrative devices. (A key character periodically speaks to an off-camera interviewer who may be a psychiatrist, a police detective or, gee, I dunno, maybe DeGrazier himself.) But never mind; at its frequent best, Attraction is at once brutally direct and tantalizingly ambiguous as it coolly observes the obsessions, deceptions and delusions that inform the untidy relationships of four flawed but fascinating individuals.
In the world according to DeGrazier, love (or, more specifically, the boundless hunger to be loved) is the drug that can make you go to extremes, make you violate your own sense of self, even while you remain absolutely certain you're behaving in a perfectly rational manner. Mind you, it takes a while for this theme to develop. At first, and for a mite too long afterward, Attraction unfolds like a standard-issue, direct-to-video thriller about psycho stalkers, distressed damsels and assorted innocent bystanders. It takes a while for the movie to reveal its true colors. But as it does, you gradually realize that some emotionally unstable characters possibly aren't as dangerous as they suggest, and that some bystanders definitely aren't as innocent as they seem.
The opening moments cue us to expect, if not the worst, then the most predictable. Matthew (Matthew Settle), a twentysomething alt-paper columnist and talk-radio host, is trying his best to look nonchalant in an all-night L.A. coffee shop that just happens to be down the street from the apartment of Liz (Gretchen Mol), his ex-girlfriend. Naturally, Liz walks into the joint. And, just as naturally, Matthew appears pleasantly surprised to see her. For Liz, however, the meeting is neither surprising nor pleasant. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, she drops the question: "How long have you been sleeping in front of my place in your car?"
As it turns out, he's been watching every breath she takes, every move she makes, ever since they broke up months ago. This has been going on long enough for a seriously spooked-out Liz to seek advice from a good friend, Garrett (Tom Everett Scott), who just happens to be Matthew's best friend. Garrett also is Matthew's editor at The Sprocket, the paper that publishes Matthew's weekly rants about interpersonal relationships. Garrett doesn't try to pull rank, but he clearly thinks Matthew is behaving inappropriately: "She's scared shitless of you!" Matthew responds to this illumination with characteristic restraint and maturity: He storms over to Liz's apartment, tries to kick open her door, and breaks a hallway window when he can't. "I hate to disappoint you, Liz," he snarls, "but I'm not obsessed with you!"
Matthew is so not obsessed that, while drowning his sorrows in some watering hole, he makes a move on Corey (Samantha Mathis), a struggling actress who is -- yes, you guessed it! -- a friend of Liz's. Matthew figures that the quickest way to make Liz jealous, thereby rekindling her desire for him, is to have a fling with one of her pals. So he follows Corey back to her place for a lusty bedding, and takes his leave immediately after the sex. It's supposed to be a one-night stand. But it's something far more important to Corey, a needy young woman with, to paraphrase Woody Allen, even less self-esteem than Zelda Fitzgerald. And much to his great surprise, Matthew slowly comes around to thinking that this close encounter may lead to something serious.
Meanwhile, Garrett goes out of his way to be helpful. He invites Matthew out for a few drinks and a game of pool, then tricks him into talking to an undercover psychiatrist at their neighborhood bar. It's all for Matthew's sake, you understand. Back at Liz's apartment, Matthew offers Liz an attentive ear and a shoulder to cry on. Times passes, and he offers other things. More time passes, and the audience starts to rethink a lot of first impressions.
It's easy to imagine that with a few jokes here and there and a lighter tone, the basic plot of Attraction could be used as the blueprint for one of those effervescent French farces in which friends become lovers, and lovers become combatants while everyone chases everyone else. But Attraction is more serious stuff. It's not quite a thriller, even though it certainly looks and sounds like one, and even though there is, inevitably, a climactic outburst of violence. In truth, it's really the dark flip side of romantic comedy -- an unsparing and unpredictable drama about the messes we make and the hearts we break while we sort out our feelings for people, and how badly we behave when we realize those other people don't feel the same way about us. It's about driving by your ex's place at three in the morning to see if the light is on. It's about the collateral damage we cause, to ourselves and others, because even the best of us can be selfish bastards.