The sell line reads, “From the corrupt minds that brought you ‘American Psycho’ and ‘Pulp Fiction'” — corrupt, in this case, is an understatement. “Rules of Attraction,” an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name, follows lead character Sean Bateman (younger brother of “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman) into the debauched world of wealthy college kids and doesn’t come up for air.
“Rules” is set at Camden, a fictional, affluent New England liberal arts college. There, a bizarre love triangle unfolds between Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), a womanizing drug dealer; Paul Owen (Ian Somerhalder), a bisexual student with a crush on Bateman; and Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), Paul’s ex-girlfriend and Bateman’s latest prey.
Director Roger Avary’s dark comedy runs teen angst into hyperdrive, wildly pursuing these disaffected youths as they experiment with casual sex, drugs, and Bateman’s refrain, “rock and roll.” The depressing story isn’t new — rich kids spiraling into decadence a la “Traffic” and “Go” — but it is entertaining to see a host of the up-and-coming WB stars (the new brat pack) lose their virtues and their clothes to a lively ’80s soundtrack by tomandandy.
This is a rough, edgy film, chock full of gimmicks, and Avary is obviously influenced by Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs”). He uses many film school tricks such as split screens, jerky handy-cam shots, and reverse motion reminiscent of “Memento.” Film references — everything from “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” to “Man with a Movie Camera” — abound in this movie, and as a result, “Rules” seems like a video produced by an over-eager, under-sexed NYU film school grad.
Most of the action takes place at parties, whether at the “pre-Saturday night party party,” the “dress to get screwed party” (aka Exotic Erotic), or the culminating “edge of the world party.” It is at these bashes that “Rules” reveals the ugly truth about calculating college kids, who manipulate each other for sex and drugs. In a cross-section of college life, the film portrays female students performing oral sex on tenured professors, two female roommates arguing over whether it’s better to be “bulemic skinny” or “anorexic skinny,” and discussing why one prefers using two condoms to birth control (duh — no weight gain).
“Rules” forays into the male psyche as well through a series of inner monologues delivered by Bateman. In one voice-over, he claims he “feeds off other people’s real emotions.” Clearly, Van Der Beek desperately tries to shed his Dawson Leery skin through his character. It is definitely disturbing to see virtuous Dawson as a self-proclaimed vampire who sells “nose candy” to freshman girls. As well, “Rules” is laced with irony — while one character succeeds all too easily at committing suicide, another fails, no matter how desperately he tries.
“Rules” oscillates between absurdist farce and an incredibly desolate but accurate portrayal of youth today, and the viewer is left unsure of what to believe. The characters all reel from party to party, searching for some kind of connection. In a desperate attempt to feel something — whether it be a high from drugs, a buzz from sex, or a true connection with another human being — they are left with the truth. And according to Bateman, “the truth is, I feel nothing.”
Despite the heavy-handed message, Avary does loosen his grip on the film in several instances. Avary is at his best when he lets go of his anxious desire to prove himself as a filmmaker and lets the camera roll. The highlight of the film occurs in a hotel room, where Avary cuts between shots of Faye Dunaway and Swoozie Kurtz downing vodkas and popping pills in the lobby while their gay sons dance in their underwear to George Michael’s “Faith.” The boys exhibit a great sense of innocence and freedom in a scene that is fun to watch.
An honorable mention also goes to a stunningly delivered monologue by Bateman’s friend Victor (Kip Pardue), in which he narrates his two-week trip through Europe. In this scene, Victor stars in a mini-movie of his own in which he highlights his drug trips, drinking, and sexual escapades.
Unlike the tongue-in-cheek teenage romp that the trailer hints at, “Rules” is unsatisfying and sleazy. Like its Ellis-adapted predecessor, “Rules” comes from a painful, dark place. But unlike “American Psycho,” which pokes fun at itself, this film has a heavy-handed message. Because it takes itself so seriously, the film is hard to watch. There is, however, a searing line of truth that runs through the film. Under its guise as a satirical observation of today’s generation, “Rules” is a cry for help, albeit a futile one.