The Rules of Attraction

The Rules of Attraction

USA, 2002. Rated R. 110 minutes.

Cast: James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Biel, Kip Pardue, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Faye Dunaway, Kate Bosworth, Clifton Collins Jr, Fred Savage, Eric Stoltz, Swoosie Kurtz
Writer: Roger Avary, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis
Cinematographer: Robert Brinkman
Producers: Greg Shapiro
Director: Roger Avary


Grade: D+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

I t is no noteworthy achievement to write a scathingly satirical novel in hip lingo about disaffected privileged youths who numb their desensitized selves with sex and drugs and booze. They're fish in a barrel. With a halfway decent ear for conversation, even the lingo is not particularly difficult to pen. Add in a few self-consciously clever touches like starting and ending the novel in the middle of sentences, and you've got yourself a "withering social dissection" for the bestseller lists. Yet, if you scratch the surface, Bret Easton Ellis's Rules of Attraction is a facile novel, all style over substance with unclear motivations and unfocused narrative--just like his first novel, Less Than Zero, the title of which would, incidentally, correspond to my rating for both books.

What is difficult is to write a withering social dissection that inspires some degree of empathy for its nihilistic, self-destructive subjects--something that reminds you they are human beings as it satirizes them. Though it fails, writer/director Roger Avary's movie version comes much closer to achieving this feat than the voyeuristic, sensationalist book.

The Rules of Attraction wants us to care about rich kids at a fictional New England college, who develop random unrequited crushes on one another amid a haze of drinking and partying. There's Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), brother to Ellis's protagonist in the subsequent American Psycho, who has sex with a different woman every night and deals a few drugs on the side, trying to pay off his debt to a psychotic townie (Clifton Collins Jr.). He develops a crush on Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon), a confused young woman who is still technically a virgin. Shannyn Sossamon and Jessica BielLauren pines for the absent Victor (Kip Pardue), who is sleeping his way through Europe. Meanwhile, lusting for Sean are bisexual--well, mostly gay--Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), Lauren's roommate Lara (Jessica Biel), and an unknown admirer. Presumably, these people also go to class once in awhile.

The film's problems aren't the actors' fault. Van Der Beek, known as the title character in Dawson's Creek, is downright frightening--definitely a career changer. The rest of the cast…eh. Sossamon (A Knight's Tale) is okay, but not memorable. The third lead, Somerhalder (Life as a House), is a Guess model with the acting ability of most models. Well, maybe slightly more. Biel (Ulee's Gold, The WB's 7th Heaven) is kind of flat, but it works for the character. Most of the other recognizable names, Kate Bosworth, Eric Stoltz, Faye Dunaway, Swoosie Kurtz, and Fred Savage, are basically cameos.

Avary, who is being touted by Lions Gate as one of the makers of Pulp Fiction (he co-wrote the stories on which Tarantino's screenplay is based), employs heaps of directorial gimmickry in bringing The Rules of Attraction to the screen--too much. One particular device, scrolling the film backward to the beginning to follow a different character, is cool at first but is way overused. Avary has also decided to make a film that isn't tied to any identifiable reality. The book is set at Bennington College in the late 1980s, while the movie is set at a fictional school (Camden) at a time whose lifestyle corresponds to the late 1980s, but in which the clothing and cars and so forth are contemporary. There is also a sequence--the Dress to Get Laid Party--lifted from Eyes Wide Shut.

With these creative decisions, Avary relieves the film somewhat of expectations of realism. However, the characters still need to function according to some set of believable and comprehensible impulses, no matter how many drugs they do or how much artistic license Avary employs. Though there are a few simplistic attempts at psychoanalysis (disaffected youths have pill-popping, liquor-swilling parents), The Rules of Attraction conveys little more than, "What a waste." Occasionally, there are glimpses of the human beings within the damaged characters--when the identity of a secret admirer is revealed, for example, and as the three protagonists confront their largely inexplicable yearnings for one another. Despite these glimmers of humanity, The Rules of Attraction doesn't offer enough reasons to invest your emotions--not to mention your time or money.

Review © October 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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