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The Rules of Attraction   C

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Roger Avary
Writer: Roger Avary (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis)
Cast: James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Biel, Kip Pardue, Kate Bosworth.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Up to a certain extent, I enjoyed Roger Avary's nihilistic satire about self-absorbed college kids charting the paths toward their own self-destructions. The Rules of Attraction may be empty, but it's so energetic that it's easy to get caught up in the style -- with all the reverse motion, freeze frames, and split-screen gimmickry -- and be whisked along by the gleeful over-the-top debauchery. Barely escaping an NC-17 rating, the movie gets away with showing a drunk guy vomiting on the girl he's sodomizing and James Van Der Beek from Dawson's Creek masturbating to Internet porn. Of course, this stuff will only seem edgy or shocking to people who have never seen any films by Todd Solondz or John Waters. Even so, the film is consistently amusing in a detached, impersonal way.

Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis (whose work made for a much better film in American Psycho) and written for the screen and directed by Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary, the plot involves a college-campus lust triangle with liberal doses of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Asshole drug dealer Sean Bateman (Van Der Beek) pines after the cute, virginal Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) because, well, she's cute, virginal, and he thinks she's the one who's been sending him anonymous love letters. But Lauren is saving herself for an old boyfriend who's off on a European vacation, while bisexual hunk Paul (Ian Somerhalder) desperately tries to hook up with Sean. The characters are drawn with such broad strokes that they never develop into real, believable people (then again, this is a kooky satire), but the performances are good. In particular, Van Der Beek effectively sheds his squeaky-clean nice-guy image for Sean Bateman's cruel, ugly, secretly self-loathing persona.

But now then. About 70 minutes into The Rules of Attraction, there's a scene in which a girl slits her wrist in a bathtub while Harry Nilsson's "Without You" plays on the soundtrack. It's at once agonizing, poignant, and mesmerizing -- easily the single best scene in the film. I got woozy as the music swelled up into a distorted echo and the camera tilted sideways on a close-up of the girl's face, going out of focus as she slowly passed on. The scene is executed with great skill and compassion, but it's completely out of place in this smug, silly, superficial movie. And to top it all off, Avary has the nerve to put some of the blame on us for the girl's suicide. As Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine points out, "Avary fascinatingly implicates the audience in her demise via a montage of clips from earlier in the film that hinted at the girl's alienation." Unfortunately, I found the implication more insulting and hypocritical than fascinating.

Avary suggests that because we, like Sean, failed to notice her, that because we didn't deem her important enough to gain our attention, we're partly responsible for her alienation and suicide. Of course, it's Mr. Avary's film and he wasn't interested in her, either, until she decided to break out the razor blade and kill herself. Besides, I'm sure I'm not the only one who would rather see a movie focusing on a girl like her, someone capable of genuine thoughts and emotions, than a film about shallow rich kids wallowing in their own self-pity while snorting all the cocaine they can handle and fucking anything that moves. Ultimately, the most fascinating thing about The Rules of Attraction is how much noise it makes for a film with nothing much to say.

Review published 04.09.2003.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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