Rules of Attraction, The

Reviewed By Preston Jones
Posted 11/20/02 12:36:24

"College in Hell"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Hey kids, look—it’s the WB on drugs! Dawson’s drinking heavily and shagging coeds at a frantic clip and Mary Camden’s snorting coke and participating in football team orgies! In what seems like a concerted effort to shatter their squeaky clean teen TV images, both James Van Der Beek and Jessica Biel join a talented cast of twenty-something thespians, including the luminous Shannyn Sossamon, in the vicious satire The Rules of Attraction, based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name.

Satire’s a tricky tightrope to walk in any medium. Lean too far one way and you’ve got farce, too far the other way and you’ve got tragedy on your hands. Director Stanley Kubrick was one of the last great film directors to convincingly toe the line when it came to satire, and modern day novelists like Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk, whose near-cinematic novels fit neatly into the satire mold.
Ellis’s works have been adapted by Hollywood during the last few years, each meeting with varying degrees of success. 1987’s Less Than Zero, a look at drugged out California teens, has been relegated to cult status; 2000’s highly controversial black comedy American Psycho ended up generating more buzz than box office and now the latest in the parade of sick and twisted Ellis adaptations—writer/director Roger Avary’s take on The Rules of Attraction.
Avary, best known for co-writing Pulp Fiction and writing/directing the unsettling Killing Zoe, hyper-stylizes Attraction’s narrative, employing nearly every film-school trick in the book (witness the nifty forward/reverse technique during the film’s opening moments) while maintaining a cold humanity and antiseptic attitude towards the film’s protagonists.
Set in a nonspecific decade at Camden College, a liberal arts college on the East coast, The Rules of Attraction follows the exploits of narcissistic ladies man Sean Bateman (Van Der Beek), relatively innocent Lauren Hynde (Sossamon), unabashed flirt Lara Holleran (Biel) and newly bisexual Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder) during the course of a school year. None of these folks have any really desirable character traits—good times for them consist of drinking, drugging and screwing whatever happens to be handy.
Things take an interesting turn when Sean begins receiving anonymous love notes from an admirer; he credits them to Lauren, who’s actually pining for Victor Johnson (Kip Pardue), who’s studying abroad—his warp-speed European highlight reel is one of the movie’s hilarious high points—when in fact, the notes could be coming from Paul, who develops a crush on the resolutely hetero Sean. Add to this the combustible sexuality and bitchiness of Lara and you’ve got one volatile bunch.
The Rules of Attraction, for all its strengths, does strike a few false notes as it unspools. Suicide is played for both pathos and laughs, rendering a deeply disturbing suicide scene—one of the film’s most haunting sequences—more or less irrelevant a few frames later. It’s this double standard that cheapens the dramatic impact of more than one of the film’s set pieces.
The acting is superb; all of the principals attack the material ferociously, erasing all preconceived notions. Even the lesser roles are filled with top-notch talent—Fred Savage has a hysterical cameo as Marc, a stoned student who can’t quite connect the dots of a sentence and while Clifton Collins Jr.’s amped-up drug dealer Rupert is almost too much at times, but he manages to convey menace beneath the ‘hood posturing.
Avary’s writing and direction are uniformly strong; he gives his cast some choice moments that illuminate the emptiness felt by the disaffected youth of Camden College. While his lens maybe judges the characters more harshly than they deserve, Avary does plumb the depths of collegiate hedonism and uncover some unpleasant truths.

A night on the warm, fuzzy WB network The Rules of Attraction isn’t, but it is one of the more complex, relentlessly thought-provoking releases this year. A definite don’t miss.

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