It’s an interesting paradox that the demographic to which The Rules of Attraction will perhaps hold the most appeal – Generation X-ers who grew up reading the novels of Brett Easton Ellis – will probably be the audience most turned off by the film. That’s due, in large part, to the fact that while Gen-X’ers have grown older and, hopefully, wiser, the characters in Ellis’ story have remained exactly the same: exceedingly childish, extremely malicious and incredibly arrogant.
Provocative and often controversial, Ellis’ books don’t translate easily to the big screen. His stories are often complex satires filled with truly unlikable characters. And his prose, written in a passive, detached style that perfectly serves the elaborate tales and disagreeable individuals involved, buzzes a mile a minute with information overload.
In an effort to emulate Ellis’ manic, hyper-kinetic style, director Roger Avary (who also wrote the script) employs several cinematic gimmicks. One of these, an ingenious “rewind” effect used during the introduction of the three main characters, is a clever trick; unfortunately, it’s worn out by the time the opening credits roll. Elsewhere, Avary utilizes jump cuts, split screens and fast-forwards to convey an “edgy” tone, with varying degrees of success. A truly inspired, three-minute scene chronicling the European travels of a minor character perfectly captures the pace, tone, and manner of Ellis’ writing, but elsewhere, the many attention-grabbing devices merely detract from the events unfolding onscreen.
The action follows the intersecting lives of three college students: Paul (Ian Somerhalder) a cynical gay boy in love with Sean (James Van Der Beek), a malevolent drug dealer, who in turn loves Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), a wistful virgin. These three are surrounded by a cadre of impossibly shallow “friends,” none of whom seem to possess more than a passing interest in anyone other than themselves. It’s the usual parade of Ellis types; namely, spoiled kids pretending to be adults who believe their trivial problems have significant meaning.
Much of their exploits play out at a series of campus parties taking place over the course of the school year: The End of the World Party, The Pre-Saturday Night Party, The Dress to Get Screwed Party, etc. Many of these scenes have no other point than to serve as an excuse for the outrageous behavior within them – graphic depictions of rape, suicide, drug use, vomiting, bowel movements, you name it. Combined, they form not so much a story than a portrait of college life in the over-materialistic ‘80s (the film isn’t technically set in that time period, but with a soundtrack of New Wave and New Romance-era hits by the likes of The Cure, Erasure, Love and Rockets and Yaz, you’d never know it).
Relishing the opportunity shed his squeaky-clean image, Van Der Beek slinks and scowls, a sadistic grimace permanently etched across his surprisingly gaunt face. It’s no coincidence his character’s last name is Bateman; although it isn’t referenced in the film, astute Ellis fans will recognize him as the younger sibling of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Like his brother, Sean is a cruel, callous young man. Addicted to cocaine and online porn, his only interest is self-gratification. In his constant pursuit of pleasure (and in spite of his professed ardor for Lauren), he uses a never-ending line of willing co-eds to engage in mechanical, unpleasant-looking sex, then tosses them aside without a further thought.
Despite the role’s complete contrast to his TV persona, Van Der Beek is more than up to the task. In an impressive demonstration of his abilities, he throws himself into the role’s more unseemly behavior with impressive conviction.
That goes for the rest of the cast as well, particularly Somerhalder, who perfectly captures the awkwardness (and unfortunate fashion choices) of a teenaged boy who’s just come to terms with his sexuality, but is still grappling with how to fit it all together in the larger scheme of things.
There’s a lot to like in The Rules of Attraction, including the aforementioned performances, a great soundtrack, and plenty of hot college boys prancing around in their underwear. But, ultimately, the monotony of the characters and the situations they’re in becomes as mind numbing as the pseudo-intellectual conversations in which they’re always earnestly engaged. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, there’s simply no disguising the fact that this is merely a bunch of over-privileged, immature kids destroying property, themselves, and each other.
Michael Rucker writes about film for HX and Empire magazines. He’s also a regular contributor to Gay City News. Reach him at MikeRucker@nyc.rr.com.