The Rules of Attraction
Director : Roger Avary
Screenplay : Roger Avary (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : James Van Der Beek (Sean Bateman), Shannyn Sossamon (Lauren Hynde), Ian Somerhalder (Paul Denton), Jessica Biel (Lara Holleran), Kip Pardue (Victor Johnson), Kate Bosworth (Kelly), Thomas Ian Nicholas (Mitchell Allen), Joel Michaely (Raymond), Clare Kramer (Candice), Jay Baruchel (Harry), Clifton Collins Jr. (Rupert), Eric Stoltz (Mr. Lance Lawson)
The Rules of Attraction is pointless adolescent nihilism wrapped up in new-wave film school pretension. The nonlinear storyline, showy use of reverse motion, and incessant internal dialogue give the vague appearance of depth, but they can’t hide the fact that writer/director Roger Avary (Killing Zoe) doesn’t seem to have a clue where he’s going.
In a casting coup, Avary got James Van Der Beek, the good-guy hunk from Dawson’s Creek, to play Sean Bateman, a glowering, drug-dealing student at the fictional Camden College. He is the central figure around which a loose set of interlocking stories revolves, all of which add up to a bleak, despondent view of the past, present, and future. At one point, Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), the one character who is meant to represent some form of purity, loses her virginity by being date-raped (and then vomited on) and having the encounter videotaped by a leering film-school pervert, and the only thing she can think is, “It was bound to happen.”
That’s the problem with the film—it’s so wrapped up in its bleak fatalism that even the moments of dark humor are too grim to work. It’s a catalog of varying degrees of youthful baseness, ranging from perversion to plain old depravity—sex, drugs, rape, masturbation, suicide—without any sense of why the characters do what they do or even a plausible world in which to place them (the party-mongering and multiple-gender sexual shenanigans are more angry geek-boy fantasy than a reflection of what really happens on today’s college campuses). It was as if the characters were born to self-destruct and are only following through on their programming, which is underscored by palpable falsity of the world they inhabit.
Bateman thinks he is in love with Lauren because he believes she has been leaving him anonymous love letters in his mailbox each week. Because Bateman is such a misanthropic sleazeball, he’s drawn to her innocence and good nature, thus showing how simplistically facile the film’s moral universe is. Lauren, however, is pining away for a guy named Victor (Kip Pardue), who spends most of the film in Europe (in the film’s one virtuoso scene, we see Victor’s entire European trip flash by in a digital video rush while he breathlessly narrates an impossibly adventurous time). Meanwhile, a gay student named Paul (Ian Somerhalder) gets the idea that Bateman is interested in him, although Bateman couldn’t care less (not so much because he isn’t gay, but because he simply doesn’t care about anyone—until Lauren, that is). Bateman has other problems to tend to anyway, including a mounting debt to a psychotic drug dealer (Clifton Collins Jr.).
The Rules of Attraction, despite its litany of “transgressive” subjects and in-your-face visual style, is ultimately quite boring. Avary chooses to begin at the end, showing each character trapping him- or herself in a moment of self-destruction at the appropriately titled “End of the World Party,” then goes back to show how it all came to be. Yet, because we already know how it ends, the filling in of the details becomes an exercise in emotional sadism because the getting there part doesn’t give us any more insight into the characters and why they do what they do. It just sticks our nose in it.
Part of this is the problem of the source material. The Rules of Attraction was based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, who also wrote the similarly nihilistic Less Than Zero and the grotesque social satire American Psycho. What all his work has in common is that it features cartoon characters, two-dimensional stand-ins for human beings whose aggregate character traits amount to little more than a laundry list of problems without definable causes or solutions (no wonder he’s so obsessed with the two-dimension world of celebrity). In a book (and/or film) like American Psycho, this approach works because of the obviousness of the satire—it can’t be too realistic lest we take it for the real thing (which too many did). In something like The Rules of Attraction, there’s no clear statement being made, no overriding theme beyond “Life sucks, deal with it.” Thus, screwing, snorting coke, slitting your wrists—it’s ultimately all the same.
Avary doesn’t seem to be fully aware of just how bleak his work is. Or, perhaps he is, which is why he chose to punch up the soundtrack with jaunty ’80s tunes like George Michael’s “Faith” and Love and Rockets’ “I’m Alive,” even though the film appears to be taking place in the present day. It might also explain why he directed his actors to exaggerate their performances to ludicrous extremes. Van Der Beek proves to have been a perfect choice as Bateman—all that earnestness that he pours in Dawson’s Creek translates with frightening ease into a one-note despondency that is depicted primarily by lowering his head and glaring upward in his best “I’m in a Stanley Kubrick film” impression. Avary heightens the visual absurdity of the performances with plenty of low angles, extreme close-ups, and awkward freeze-frames, basically anything to distance us from their characters as humans. It feels like a lot of effort for little result beyond almost immediate numbness.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick