Tom Block, writing in these pages about another film based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel, said: "American Psycho has all the trappings of a thoughtful film except profundity – it’s a swimming pool without a deep end." The Rules of Attraction, a new film based on an earlier Ellis novel, might then be called, not unfairly, a kiddie pool without water.
The two films are connected by their leading characters. In American Psycho it was Patrick Bateman, a sadistic murderer, a true psychopath lacking in conscience and affect, set against the background of the financial success and materialistic excess of the late 1980′s. In The Rules of Attraction, it’s Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), officially the brother of Patrick, but really just an earlier version of the same guy, an utterly repellent character without redeeming value on screen. The time, too, has regressed to college days, the milieu specifically a coed liberal arts college where the partying, sex, and drugs are nonstop and academic efforts have beenrelegated to insignificance.
In a La Ronde-like plot structure, Sean pines for Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), who tries to suppress her own sexuality by looking at medical illustrations of VD cases. She’s carrying a torch for Victor (Kip Pardue), who is traveling, screwing his way around Europe, oblivious to Lauren who was, for him, just another roll in the hay. Also yearning for Sean is Paul, a young gay (or perhaps bisexual) guy who, like the others, sets his heart on an unattainable liaison. The difference is, of course, that Paul will get punched out for his yearnings. And someone is writing anonymous love letters to Sean which he assumes to be from Lauren.
Writer/director Rogar Avary (Killing Zoe) fills his film with drugs (soft and hard) and sex (soft and hard), presumably offering social satire of the overprivileged collegians as the excuse for a constant stream of dope smoking, coke snorting (with nosebleed), and shooting up–not to speak of rape, masturbation, suicide, and an orgy scene–a clear allusion to Eyes Wide Shut, including the use of those blank-faced white masks. Rest in peace, Mr. Kubrick.
The satirical points are so obvious (the instructor trading promises of higher grades for oral sex, the parents as caught up in alcohol and pill-popping as their kids) and the laughs so few and far between that any pretension to substance in The Rules of Attraction seems only an excuse to portray its graphic excesses for exploitation purposes.But who could possibly be interested in this soft-core meanness? Maybe it’s really for the junior high set, sneaking into the theater (MPAA Rating: R, after changes were made to please the censors) to see what future thrills are in store.
Avary also fails to distinguish the various characters; every one of them is an undifferentiated, self-absorbed package of raging hormones and unfulfillable neediness–they’re virtually interchangeable. Only Sean, for his sheer hatefulness, stands out marginally from the rest. But Van Der Beek, who comes off as a Ben Affleck wannabe, sets one tone and stays with it; the character doesn’t change and has nothing going on under the surface. No one will be fooled by the tear that falls from his eye when he knows he’s lost the girl he never had; it’s not indicative of learning or insight, but only self-pity. Even as he feels sorry for himself, he equally crushes Paul with a cold rejection.
Perhaps sensing that the film was in trouble, Avary tries to juice it up with gimmicks. (He’s obviously seen Darren Aronofsky’s remarkable Requiem for a Dream.) Split screen shots, extended time moving backwards takes, TV programming running in the background–Avary’s a veritable catalogue of other people’s ideas.