‘The Rules of Attraction’ Invites You to Look Beneath Its Seedy Surface

I was flipping through what was available to watch on cable one day. I rarely go there unless there is a television show involved. There were no good horror movies on, and I was hoping there would be, but then I came across one called “The Rules of Attraction.” Based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, it was written for the screen and directed by Roger Avary, the same filmmaker who directed a kick ass heist movie named “Killing Zoe.” While this one is not quite as good as “Killing Zoe,” it has a number of memorable moments and takes a lot of risks which many films don’t often bother to.

“The Rules of Attraction” ensnares the audience in a world of spoiled rotten brats who have been handed everything to them on a silver platter. Witness their insane antics as they spend their time getting high and hopelessly inebriated at endless parties which take place at their preppy New England college. Obviously, they don’t seem to realize they are not superhuman, nor do they care about what will happen to their shallow souls assuming they ever survive their infinite decadence. These selfish and spoiled characters are a common fixture of the Ellis’ work, and he has since proclaimed this film to be the best adaptation of any of his novels.

While I want to despise these characters for what they do to others and themselves, both Ellis and Avery show their inescapable humanity and consciousness which lies not all that far beneath the surface, and each of them desperately wants to open themselves up to another they cannot stop thinking about. It’s this humanity which gives “The Rules of Attraction” another dimension, and it kept me from being completely repelled by all the characters’ shenanigans. As much as you want to see these young adults get their just desserts, none of them really deserve the severe consequences they end up receiving.

This film certainly offered many young actors a much-desired opportunity to shed their nice or squeaky-clean images for something completely opposite. We have actors here from “Dawson’s Creek” and “7th Heaven” who are clearly desperate to break from the shackles of their all-too-polite characters before they end up becoming permanently inseparable from them. It is not surprise they want to be seen as more adult than their ages would suggest as no one ever acts their age. Then again, who wants to?

I do, however, have to be honest and say Fred Savage, who plays a junkie named Marc, feels a bit out of place here. Please don’t get me wrong; he has a great cameo here, but the image of him as Kevin Arnold from “The Wonder Years” is impossible to wipe from my conscious mind. While watching him inject something lethal into his veins, all I could think of was him getting back together with Winnie Cooper. Still, Savage is always welcome to prove to me there is far more to him than that classic show in the future.  

For me, the biggest surprise of “The Rules of Attraction” was James Van Der Beek who plays Sean Bateman, a drug dealer and distant relative of Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho.” Like the other characters, Sean is selfish, greedy and more worried about his own problems than anyone else’s. Throughout, Sean presents himself as an opportunist who preys on the weaknesses of others, but Van Der Beek makes you see him as someone desperately longing for something pure and someone to connect with in a world where everyone seems more content living in their own tiny bubble.

Van Der Beek was very believable in this role to me, and there was nothing of Dawson to be found throughout. Looking back, I bet he was just dying to play a character like this so he could shatter the image which could have forever defined him to millions.

I imagine this was the same case with Jessica Biel of “7th Heaven” fame. She has more than shed whatever nice girl image she had from that show, and I bet this film was her first real opportunity to do so. Biel plays Lara Holleran, roommate to Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossaman) whom shares a lot of experiences with, including snorting cocaine until their noses bleed (“rusty pipes!”). Lara comes off as the most shamelessly selfish character in this film as she manipulates both the men and women around her to get what she wants. Her comeuppance near the end was richly deserved and almost had me cheering in my apartment.

Shannyn Sossaman portrays perhaps the purest character in all of “The Rules of Attraction” in Lauren Hynde. Lauren is a virgin, and we see her constantly looking through a book with pictures of venereal diseases perhaps to protect herself by reminding herself of the consequences which could befall her if she does not play it safe. Sossaman is a beauty to behold but her beauty is toned down here to make her seem a bit more ordinary, and it works effectively in her performance.

And then there is also Paul Denton, played by Ian Somerhalder, a gay man more concerned about a date he has, or thinks he does, with Sean to where a gay friend overdosing on drugs is more of annoyance than a genuine concern for him. Paul thinks he knows how Sean feels about him, and he cannot get him out of his mind. But as selfish as Paul may be, to see him get his heart broken in two is very sad, and Somerhalder makes his heartbreak all the more vivid.

When it comes down to it, “The Rules of Attraction” is essentially a love triangle of obsession as we watch several characters desperately pine for another, and yet the one they are pinning is instead more interested in someone else. In an atmosphere filled with shallow pursuits, all of them want something purer, more honest and real than why they have already been given, and there is something about this which I cannot help but relate to. That they may end up never getting what they want, and I found myself terrified by this realization. In the end, they may have to reevaluate where they are in their lives where they can go from here.

If this film proves anything the most strongly, it is this: Unrequited love is a bitch! When you are young, those painful emotions can feel far too epic.

Avary hides no taboos here as there are drugs, drinking, sex, date rape, suicide, attempted suicide, etc. He uses a lot of split screens which are effective in separating different moods in the same scene. One moment has him bringing the split screens for Sean Bateman and Lauren Hynde together, and it is brilliantly seamless to where I would love to know how the filmmakers accomplished it.

I also have to say “The Rules of Attraction” contains one of the most emotionally devastating suicide scenes I have ever witnessed in a motion picture. As a result, I will never listen to the Harry Nilsson song “Without You” ever again without thinking of this scene. Seriously, it proves to be as scaring a scene as watching that horse drown in “The Neverending Story.”

The one thing Avary ends up overdoing here is the time reversal effect. He rewinds the film at given moments to get to another point or character in the same setting, and these moments end up going on for too long. After a while, part of me was saying, “ALRIGHT! WE GET THE POINT ALREADY!”

“The Rules of Attraction” received mostly mixed reviews upon its release back in 2002, and I can certainly understand why. People reacted negatively to the characters here, and it is true many of them have few, if any, redeeming values. Then again, do characters need to be likable in order for a film to work effectively? I think not. At the very least, we come to understand their desperate yearnings to where we cannot help but see ourselves in them. That’s why I think the movie works as it never supplies us with one-dimensional characters, but instead with ones we find ourselves relating to even if we are not quick to do so. Seriously, I can sum up the frustrations of the characters with the title of a Nine Inch Nails song, “I just want something I can never have. “

If I have made “The Rules of Attraction” sound like the average Lars Von Trier depression extravaganza, I apologize. While this is essentially a black comedy with some very funny moments, it does contain some very serious scenes which have burned into my memory. Granted, the scene with the two gay men dancing on the bed to George Michael’s “Faith” is a big highlight as well as the restaurant scene which follows it, but this movie is an acquired taste and is not about to appeal to a mainstream audience. But if you have the stomach for it and are into the black comedy, you cannot avoid or easily dismiss this particular motion picture.

It’s interesting to watch this movie after having watched “The Sopranos” series finale. Like that last episode, this movie comes to an abrupt stop. We will never know what happens to these characters when, and if, they ever leave college. Then again, what more is there to say?

* * * out of * * * *

‘Once Upon a Deadpool’ Has Subversive Delights But Feels Largely Uneven

Once Upon a Deadpool poster

Well, it turns out we didn’t have to wait too long for another “Deadpool” movie to make its way to theaters everywhere. But as I’m sure you know by now, this is actually “Deadpool 2” rechristened as a Christmas movie and diluted down to a PG-13 rating, and it comes with the amusing title of “Once Upon a Deadpool.” This version comes with the added bonus of Wade Wilson/Deadpool reading the story of this sequel to Fred Savage who finds himself trapped in a painstakingly recreated set of his character’s bedroom from “The Princess Bride.” Is it worth the price of admission? Well, yes and no.

What makes this modified version of “Deadpool 2” worth seeing is the interplay between Ryan Reynolds and Savage who still looks like he has only aged so much from his child actor days. As much as Savage tries to convince Wade of how he has long since become an adult and, in addition to acting, also works as a writer and director. It’s also doesn’t help things that Wade has kidnapped Savage and taped him to the bed. But as Wade sees it, this is just “unsolicited location advancement.”

One thing “Once Upon a Deadpool” will forever make you remember is a certain comic book trope known as “fridging.” This refers to a female character, a girlfriend or spouse, getting killed off as a plot device to forward the main character’s actions and evolution. Many criticized “Deadpool 2” for being quick to kill off Wade’s girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), as she was one of the most memorable characters from the original. This was complicated by the sequel’s co-writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, freely admitting they were never aware of this trope. Well, at least everyone credit here as Savage confronts Wade about this and describes it as “lazy writing.” Even now, he everyone involved in the “Deadpool” franchise is quick to have a sense of humor about the criticisms made about the movie. Whatever the writers’ intentions, it is good for a big laugh.

Even with a PG-13 rating, this revised version takes no prisoners as those in front of and behind the camera lay waste to Nickelback, the fact Deadpool is a Marvel character subsidized by 20th Century Fox and not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the number of F-bombs which can be included in a version, excluding of course the 4-letter words which are bleeped out. Then again, those bleeped out words may not be the ones you are thinking of.

As for Nickelback, I’m not sure if I have ever listened to any of their songs. All I know is everyone seems to think they suck. I wonder how they feel about all the derision they get for their music. Maybe the fact they are mentioned in this movie will raise their record sales a little. Remember, any publicity is good publicity.

In many ways, the whole of “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a send-up of the PG-13 rating in general. When you look at what is left of “Deadpool 2” after the removal of certain words and the copious amounts of blood, we are still left with a motion picture which is still pretty violent and features, among other things, characters getting run over by cars, Deadpool exploding into pieces, and T.J. Miller whom I figured would be removed from this version the same way Kevin Spacey was removed from “All the Money in the World.” Besides, we already know this actor will not be around for “Deadpool 3.”

This PG-13 rated version also serves as an amusing reminder of the hypocrisy of the MPAA as they are clearly more comfortable with violence than they are with sex. Imagine if there was a scene of Vanessa getting oral pleasure from Wade. The MPAA would flip over that more than any scene of ultra-violence this sequel has to offer and would be quick to give it an NC-17 for all the wrong reasons.

Having said all this, I have to say “Once Upon a Deadpool” is undone by this rating as scenes are excised and others added, and it throws off the whole rhythm of the film. The narrative feels severely uneven, and what was funny before now feels stilted and out of place this time around. “Deadpool 2” was one of the best times I had at the movies in 2018, but this version makes me wonder why I enjoyed it so much in the first place. If nothing else, it proves how the “Deadpool” movies work better in R-rated territory. When the first one came along, it was a cinematic grenade the realm of comic book/superhero movies needed as many of them were playing it safe. This made the first “Deadpool” all the more welcome as it shook things up and gave us something not all PC, but it was still filled with a lot of heart and taught everyone a great lesson about loving someone from the inside out and not the outside in.

So overall, “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a mixed bag. I loved the scenes between Savage and Reynolds as they add another subversive layer to the proceedings, but the rest of the movie feels off-balance. If you can handle that, then it is worth checking out, and a dollar from your ticket will be donated to the Fudge Cancer charity. It is actually known under another name, but again, we are in PG-13 territory and only so many F-bombs will be tolerated along with onscreen violence.

And yes, there are some enjoyable post-credit scenes to enjoy including an honorable tribute to the late Stan Lee. Yes, he was 95 years old, but he still left us way too soon.

* * ½ out of * * * *