The Rules of Attraction

You will see very few — probably no — movies this year that play with the film medium as joyfully, and with as much reckless elegance, as The Rules of Attraction. I want this movie on DVD tomorrow so I can watch it on a loop over and over; I loved every jagged, unstable minute of it even when a headache that kicked in about halfway through (not induced by the movie) forced me to squint through much of the proceedings. Of course, you need to realize two things going in: There’s no story, and there are no characters you’d find interesting for more than thirty seconds in real life. That’s par for the course with material that originated from Bret Easton Ellis, the zombie Dostoyevsky of the Brat Pack. But writer-director Roger Avary — like Mary Harron, who worked similar magic with Ellis’ American Psycho two years ago — performs a dazzling feat of alchemy on the base metals of Ellis’ unreadable 1987 novel.

The action is largely confined to debauchery and unrequited yearning, and unfolds mostly on and around the campus of Camden College, where the education seems to be solely the sexual variety (and varieties), and lessons are learned in bedrooms rather than classrooms. But it’s not all lust: mass quantities of drugs and alcohol are consumed before, after, and during the sex, and occasionally an unselfish human emotion does peek through the fog before dying of loneliness. But mainly we’re watching Sean (James Van Der Beek), who has the hots for Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), who has the hots for Victor (Kip Pardue) …. Ellis and Avary can expound on the satirical weight of this stuff all they want, but this is essentially a postmodern Archie comic — Sean even has a Jughead in the form of the bisexual Paul (Ian Somerhalder), who has the hots for him — and Avary rightly treats it as such.

I was not among the admirers of Avary’s first film, 1994’s self-consciously vicious Killing Zoe. It was clear to me that Avary had talent (he did have a hand in writing Pulp Fiction, after all), but Killing Zoe seemed too, well, Tarantino-esque; I wondered if Avary had a voice of his own. Taking off from Ellis’ monotone, Avary spreads his wings and sings. To confuse the Dawson’s Creek fans in the audience, Avary runs what seems like half the first reel backwards, doubling back to show the same party three different ways. A split-screen scene between Sean and Lauren ends with the neatest camera trick I’ve seen in a movie since the forced perspective in The Fellowship of the Ring. Avary also gives us a high-speed condensed version of Victor’s drugs-and-sex-fueled trip through Europe; the sequence is a mini-essay on the maxim “Brevity is the soul of wit.” On one level, The Rules of Attraction is brilliant film-geek eye candy, borrowing liberally from the greats (Kubrick, Scorsese) to tell a story fundamentally not worth telling.

So why see it? Well, aside from Avary’s brand of rock and roll (by the way, the film has some of the most diabolically funny music cues ever, ranging from “Faith” to “Afternoon Delight”), there’s the acting; Van Der Beek is several continents removed from the Creek here, a lackadaisical sadist who shrugs between sensations, and Shannyn Sossamon, an empty pixie in most other roles, bruises and blossoms here as a self-hating virgin whose psyche is as snarled as her hair. Special mention must also go to Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz as out-of-it pill-popping matrons, Clifton Collins Jr. as a coked-up dealer who uses a certain 12-letter word as every part of speech, and the drop-dead hilarious Russell Sams as Paul’s gay buddy Richard, who prefers to be called Dick. Sams’ dinner chat with the mortified Dunaway and Kurtz scales the heights of Jim Carrey-esque mania; it’s the film’s highlight.

So: masterfully directed, well-acted, and dead in the water dramatically and emotionally. Is this a recommendation? Hell, yes: Think of how many movies lately have been badly directed and acted and dramatically/emotionally stunted. This one has Eric Stoltz as a leering Irish professor, and Fred Savage tootling on his clarinet while riding a heroin high, and a student walking backwards through the snow, erasing his footprints as the snow flutters upward. And by example and without editorializing, The Rules of Attraction also manages to comment on the follies of excess and instant gratification. Speaking of the latter: I’ll have that DVD now, please.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, comedy, cult, drama, one of the year's best, satire

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