‘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 * * * *