Roger Avary’s adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ sophomore novel offers a dazzling exhibition of cinematic tricks. The elaborate reverse-footage montage that opens things is but the prelude to an orgy of effects–split screens, overhead shots, speeded-up episodes, fish-head distortions; almost any device one can imagine shows up here at one point or another. “The Rules of Attraction” may well take your breath away. But if so, it won’t be because of your amazement at Avary’s prodigious technique. You’ll be gasping because you’re appalled that so much virtuosity has been expended to so little purpose. The movie has the effect of an unexpected punch in the stomach–it’s striking, but gross, upsetting and thoroughly unpleasant.
Actually, while one might take Avary to task for his visual assault, he’s not entirely at fault here. His film is a serious attempt to replicate, in cinematic terms, the shape and style of Ellis’ book. The problem is that the book itself is rather a mess. Ellis is a talented writer–“Less Than Zero” has a certain slick power and “American Psycho” was unfairly maligned–but “Rules” was pretty much a mistake. Its characters are all obnoxious; its central point–that everybody is attracted to someone who’s attracted to somebody else, with unfortunate results all around–is at best banal; and its structure–combining a melange of stream-of-consciousness “voices” from none-too-articulate college students interested only in sex, drugs and partying–is both affected and trying. It’s easy to see why no one attempted to bring it to the screen until now. And it would probably have been better had nobody tried.
The story is but a roundelay of longings misdirected, sometimes tragically. Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek)–notice how the surname is the same as that of the protagonist in “American Psycho”)–is a drug-dealing, class-cutting rogue with a brutally cynical, selfish attitude. Yet he develops an interest in Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), a girl who’s been saving herself for Viktor (Kip Pardue), a slick art student who barely knows she exists and is, at the moment, off on a European trip anyway (he narrates his adventures to us at one point in one of the picture’s most elaborate visual extravaganzas, an attempt to duplicate a particularly bizarre chapter from the book). Then there’s Paul (Ian Somerhalder), a gay guy who’s unaccountably smitten with the rather seedy Sean. But he’s not alone: Bateman has a secret admirer who sends him handwritten love notes filled with glitter. For some reason Sean assumes that Lauren is the writer, but it turns out to be an entirely peripheral character–a mousy girl who offs herself in another visually striking but ugly sequence, when he ignores her. There are plenty of other bits of teen flotsam floating about in the shabby world of the fictional Camden campus: Lauren’s flirtatious roomie Lara (Jessica Biel); an inept Bateman wannabe named Mitchell (Thomas Ian Nicholas); the inarticulate Marc (Fred Savage). (You might also recognize, at the very beginning, Eric Szmanda, goofy Greg of “C.S.I.,” as the film student to whom a drunken Lauren loses her virginity.) But as unattractive as all of them are, the few adults who appear are even more awful. There’s Lance Lawson (Eric Stoltz), a teacher who’ll trade grades for a blow job. As if he weren’t appalling enough, however, Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz have been induced to camp it up in a particularly gruesome sequence as two drunken society matrons–Denton’s mother and her friend Mrs. Jared. The awfulness in attempting to carry off their supposedly satirical episode would be more noticeable were it not for an even more abysmal turn in it from Russell Sams as Dick Jared, who has eyes for Paul; in a film overflowing with bad acting, Sams takes the cake with a performance that’s irredeemably corrupt and overdone.
All of which is Avary’s fault, of course. In trying to recreate on screen the sort of deliberately vulgar overstatement that was the essential quality of Ellis’ book, he not only indulges in virtuoso camera tricks that become exhausting when used in such proliferation, but encourages his cast to play not just to the balcony but to the next block. Van Der Beek, for example, goes overboard trying to shed his likable Dawson persona–he often seems to be trying to channel Malcolm McDowell’s Alex from “A Clockwork Orange,” especially in repeated shots in which the camera focuses on his face in close-up while his expression turns slowly from blankness to a malicious grin. Sossamon, Pardue and Somerhalder are less conspicuously over-the-top, but none manages to create an even slightly sympathetic character. (One might also mention the numerous episodes of young performers prancing about the screen, usually in their undies–bits that come off like deranged recollections of the high-school chorus line in “The Breakfast Club.”)
The result is a film that will make your eyes ache while offering little compensatory insight or emotional contact. “The Rules of Attraction” is a cold, crass exhibitionist exercise without heart or soul.