Directed By Roger Avary
By: Eric Greenwood
Sex, sin, drugs, debauchery, and, oh, lots of cocaine and vomit- everything you always wanted in a teen film but were afraid to ask. Even though it seems like Rules Of Attraction is just a vehicle for James Van Der Beek to prove that he's not the stiff, precocious git he plays on Dawson's Creek, it's actually the darkest, most gloriously entertaining teen film since Cruel Intentions. And I say that with utmost sincerity. Sure it's a hollow, non-judgmental look at nihilistic, angst-ridden prep school kids, but it doesn't purport to be anything else. Such emptiness is the whole point, which you're fully aware of if you've followed Bret Easton Ellis' literary career even peripherally. Director Roger Avary, while not exactly faithful to Ellis' text in a literal sense, is extremely faithful to the spirit of Ellis' amoral, gender-bending, non-linear second novel.
The story itself isn't important. It never is in an Ellis novel, but this one revolves around the intertwining relationships of a bunch of spoiled brats trying to get stoned and laid and stoned and drunk and laid again ad nauseum, so, yes, it's just like Less Than Zero, except this time instead of L.A. it's based at the fictitious Camden college. So, complaints of the film's being "plotless" are superfluous because a plot would require an emotional connection, of which there is none. This is purely gratuitous celluloid. What matters, though, is the tension between the characters and how they respond to the absurd situations they find themselves in. That's why the casting makes this film. Van Der Beek isn't the only actor who gets to shatter his squeaky clean image. Fred Savage of Wonder Years fame has a genius cameo as a heroin junkie flaking out on a debt repayment. The scene is a complete mindfuck, as we get to watch little Kevin Arnold improvise a clearly smacked-out monologue, eliciting multiple guffaws.
Seventh Heaven's Jessica Biel also gets a chance to tarnish her moral façade (even though her pictorial in Gear pretty much sealed that deal a few years ago). She plays a coked-up slut who betrays her best friend every chance she gets (because being "best friends" in Ellis' world means about as much as a relationship with your drug dealer). Her best friend, well, let's say, roommate, is the reason to see the film, though. Relative newcomer Shannyn Sossoman has that slightly mysterious, slightly foreign, bad-girl-with-a-cool-haircut look that makes her role as Lauren play out effortlessly onscreen. She bites her lip and pouts at all the right moments, fully aware of how irresistible she is to the camera. Such frivolous eye candy is made palatable in the film through Avary's intuitive use of music. The soundtrack fuels much of the tension that Avary effectively exploits every chance he gets.
Avary's pedigree is impressive, having directed the darkly comic Killing Zoe as well as having been a co-writer of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. He's a bit showy with the camera much like Tarantino, unabashedly using split screens, stop/start motions, and rolling the tape backwards while implementing quick, jagged cuts. Such "look at me" histrionics are typically off-putting, but in a world created by Bret Easton Ellis it seems to fit perfectly, especially given Ellis' elliptical narration. Avary interpreted the novel for the screen himself, and having worked so closely on stories with Tarantino reveals itself in his tightly wound dialogue.
Avary's sense of comedy is striking. Some of the best scenes of the film are built around shockingly absurd dialogue, which only occasionally crosses the line into caricature (I'm looking in your direction, Rupert the coke dealer). The scene where the recently out-of-the-closet Paul Denton meets up with an ex-boyfriend, Richard (It's DICK!), in a posh hotel is a solid five minutes of gut-busting hilarity, replete with a homoerotic George Michael lip-synching routine and classic drunken ramblings. Avary seems to relish in the lack of substance of his characters, the pinnacle of which is a tangential, stream of consciousness, scene-stealing segment following a minor character's jaunt through Europe. It's an MTV-style collage of fast cuts and voice-overs, as Victor callously narrates his hyperbolic exploits. Incidentally, Avary is directing another Ellis adaptation, Glamorama, which stars Victor (Kip Pardue), and, if this brief introduction is any indication, it should be a blast.
Rules of Attraction will likely make most viewers expecting a straight-laced teen comedy staffed by the WB rather angry. It's frustratingly cynical and full of itself, flaunting its unscrupulous and unsympathetic outlook in your face. Avary unapologetically delights in the corruption that unfolds. But it's also pitch-perfect in its representation of the shallowness that Bret Easton Ellis invokes in all of his novels. And if you can overlook some of the cheesy effects that Avary indulges in, you will no doubt walk away with a smile on your face because there's nothing more entertaining than watching other people fall apart right before your eyes.