For a motion picture opening in wide release (and targeted at a college-age demographic), "The Rules of Attraction" is one of the most unconventional and conspicuously innovative cinematic treats of the year. Based on the novel by controversial author Bret Easton Ellis ("American Psycho
"), writer-director Roger Avary plows head-on into his sometimes shocking and usually graphic subject matter. Auspiciously using such unorthodox filmmaking techniques as split screens, sped-up film, and scenes played backwards, only to start up again in forward motion, Avary paints an at times caustically funny but mostly just stark and downbeat picture of aimless wanderers attending Camden University.
Classwork and a bright future seem to hardly be the point to these characters. Instead, they spend their days high on drugs, drunk off booze, and usually in someone else's bed. The three central characters are Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), a self-proclaimed sexual vampire who is always emotionlessly searching for his latest prey; Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon), a virgin saving herself for her old boyfriend (Kip Pardue) who has been spending a semester abroad in Europe; and Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), a gay student who finds himself attaching to unavailable (read: straight) guys. Each of them is uncontrollably in love with another who does not return the gesture. While Sean discovers an until-now hidden heart deep within him as he falls for Lauren, they are never able to connect as Sean would like. Meanwhile, Paul cannot help but be drawn to the brooding Sean.
Although parents of teen and college-age children may be skeptical of what is presented in "The Rules of Attraction," Avary has captured a horrifying reality to the generation that is more truthful than any of them may suspect. The film is, at once, cynical, unblinkingly dark, hilarious, and tragic. It also, despite some viewers' possible judgment, has a pure heart that beats throughout these characters' lives. Everyone has been in love with someone who wasn't in love back, but most of us deal with it as best we can. The characters of Ellis' novel and Avary's adaptation have been so desensitized by the world that when their hearts are broken, they have no idea how to deal with it.
Richly scored by Tomandandy and featuring a slew of '80s songs, "The Rules of Attraction" is a technical masterpiece. The pre-title opening sequence, which runs for nearly twenty minutes, gets off to an utterly gripping start, as it introduces one character at the climactic End of the World Party on campus, then retraces their steps and starts over with another character. Following the bravura prologue, time is retraced back once again to months earlier, where it gradually leads up to the beginning of the movie, as we see how each of these characters have found themselves in their individual situations. Another sequence that uses a split-screen to simultaneously depict Sean and Lauren headed to class, only for them to finally meet up and the two sides of the screen join into a whole, is unlike anything you are sure to have ever seen. Other touches, including the use of a falling snowflake to pose as a tear for one heartbroken character, are just as visually stunning.
"Dawson's Creek" star James Van Der Beek (1999's "Varsity Blues
") sheds his squeaky clean image to vividly portray Sean, the film's insincere but hurting antihero. Van Der Beek owns the celluloid every time he is onscreen, and his large, oval head is used to rapturous effect during his frequent close-ups. As the naive Lauren, Shannyn Sossamon (2002's "40 Days and 40 Nights
")not a personal favorite as far as young actresses gostuns for the first time in the film's most emotionally tender role. Ian Somerhalder (2001's "Life as a House
") also does very well as Paul, a distraught young man always pining for the unattainable. His scenes with Dick (Russell Sams), a whacked-out, boozy past flame, and their visiting, pill-popping mothers (Swoosie Kurtz, Faye Dunaway), are pulled off to optimal comedic effect.
In supporting roles, Jessica Biel (2001's "Summer Catch
") is enjoyably flighty, if underused, as Lauren's slutty roommate, Lara; Thomas Ian Nicholas (2002's "Halloween: Resurrection
") is Sean's uptight buddy, Mitchell; Kate Bosworth (2002's "Blue Crush
") is briefly but memorably glimpsed as one of Sean's one night stands; and "The Wonder Years" lead Fred Savage (2002's "Austin Powers in Goldmember
") has an outrageous cameo as a zonked-out heroin junkie that really has to be seen to be believed.
There are times when it seems Roger Avary has gone too far, particularly in a disturbing and gruesome portrayal of a suicide, but "The Rules of Attraction" is so unapologetic in its every bleak moment that to criticize it would be to miss the point of what the film is trying to get at. When most movies that come down the pipeline for mainstream audiences are safe, generic, and predictable, Avary has aspired to create the antithesis of all these adjectives. "The Rules of Attraction" is a most original creation worth a look for any courageous viewer willing to go along for the ride. It isn't exactly what one would typically consider to be entertaining, but it is unforgettable.
©2002 by Dustin Putman