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Movie Review

Funny, but All 'The Rules of Attraction' Does Is Repulse

Based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel about bored collegians, the film takes its subjects too seriously.

October 11, 2002|MANOHLA DARGIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost everything you need to know about Roger Avary's swaggering adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' 1987 novel "The Rules of Attraction" happens in the movie's first 10 minutes. At an "end of the world party" where she's had too much to drink, a college freshman named Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) follows a film student into a bedroom where she expects to lose her virginity. Lauren keeps drifting in and out of consciousness, which is why it takes her a few seconds to realize that the guy flailing on top of her isn't the film student because the film student is recording the scene with his digital camera. Resigned or too drunk to care, Lauren shuts her eyes--whereupon the stranger vomits all over her face.

That's repulsive, but what makes it noteworthy is that in the book the guy doesn't throw up on the girl--he uses a wastebasket. There's something to be learned from what's been added to an adaptation, which can be as instructive as the stuff that's been omitted. Avary adapted the novel into a screenplay as well as directed the film, and in addition to the regurgitation tweak, he's added a temporal kink not in the original story. Rewinding the action so that people and beer flow in reverse, he shows Lauren and the film student walking backward out of the bedroom and into the party, at which point the story picks up with another character, who announces that his "life lacks forward momentum." It isn't the only thing in the movie that does.

As in the book, the film revolves around three undergraduates at an elite New England college that sounds a lot like Bennington, the school Ellis attended in the mid-1980s when he published his first novel, "Less Than Zero." "The Rules of Attraction," the author's second book, centers on a drug dealer named Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), younger brother to Patrick Bateman, the eponymous serial killer from yet another of Ellis' titles, "American Psycho." Everyone on campus seems to have a thing for Sean, including Paul (Ian Somerhalder), a senior who once went out with Lauren, who, in turn, soon finds herself attracted to and repulsed by the big pusher on campus.

Both the novel and film of "The Rules of Attraction" are stitched together from competing interior monologues steeped in narcissism and the sort of self-conscious anomie on which a thousand and one teen stories have burned bright. The book is set during the mid-1980s, a fertile period for Ellis' brand-name lampooning. For him, college is a hunting ground in which no one ever goes to class, cracks open a book (much less a smile) or gives serious thought to the future, including such then-hot causes as ending apartheid. When they're not imbibing dope, partaking in sexual musical chairs or feeling oppressed by their parents' money, the characters are riffling through high and low culture like bored teenagers flipping through bins of used CDs.

To underscore the sheer meaningless of, like, you know, life, every so often someone mentions the "postmodern condition," which Ellis seems to think is another word for alienation. It's this sense of juvenile despair that likely appealed to Avary, who, because he takes the characters and their discount ennui as gospel, manages to turn a parody of adolescent angst into a pricey exploitation movie. The principal problem for Avary is that in contrast to Ellis, a writer whose slippery point of view tends to send up the characters he enshrines (intentionally or not), the director doesn't have the gift of speaking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. However many crude jokes he cracks, Avary takes these kids seriously.

Priming the pump of adult outrage comes with being young, as does showing off. When one of the characters in the film slits her wrists, the suicide is as flamboyantly staged (and lovingly shot) as a Vegas floor show. Avary, whose other feature is the shock caper film "Killing Zoe" (1994) and who remains best known for co-writing "Pulp Fiction" with Quentin Tarantino, isn't one to indulge in empathy, particularly if gets in the way of a cool setup. His film is crammed with such showboating technique. The camera prowls and zips for some Brian De Palma loop-de-loop by way of David Fincher. In one scene, the screen splits into two halves that are subsequently fused together; in another, a fantasy takes up one side of the image while reality weighs down the other.

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