Rules of Attraction Movie Review

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I wondered while laboring through Roger Avary's new film The Rules of Attraction if, now that I'm approaching 30, I've lost my appreciation for early 20s angst. It was a brief wondering, interrupted by a fierce gust of "No, wait, I had a good bout of the angsts yesterday trying to determine whether the future would involve employment or this hazy otherworld of 'freelancing' and 'contract work' I occupy now." Then I ate breakfast and forgot about it. Avary, who hit the career zenith in the gloomy early 1990s by winning an Academy Award for co-writing Pulp Fiction and is now 37, hasn't. He spends the better part of two hours trying to convince us that making James Van Der Beek do cocaine and say "fuck" a lot is some kind of Statement About the Hopelessness and Desperation of This Generation. How's this for a pitch? "It's like Kids...but in college!"

But it isn't. In the hands of a professional angst wrangler like Larry Clark, I'd bite. Clark makes up his mind fairly quickly whether we're supposed to care or not about his waistoid characters and their crappy lives and then creates but honestly and with ugliness in this vain. Avary directs like a nasty teenager, asking you to care and then laughing at you for doing so.

The plot follows a half-dozen college kids at the fictional Camden University, where studying and going to class functions as an intermission between getting stoned, screwing, and sleeping off hangovers. It's given structure by the voice-over narrations of Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), an introspective virgin who wants to change that (but with who?), Sean (James Van Der Beek), the campus drug dealer she lusts after but views her both as customer and conquest, and Paul (Ian Somerhalder), Lauren's former boyfriend, now gay, who has a thing for Sean as well. Everyone tries to sleep with everyone else and some of them even succeed. Various other roommates, offended parents, and perverted graduate students enter the picture but leave quickly without much of an impact. Yet given Avary's bored, smug style of flinging debauchery at the screen in hope of something sticking, that's not saying much.

Avary has claimed that Rules of Attraction represents a 15-year quest to bring Bret Easton Ellis's much maligned second novel to the screen. Ellis set the literary world on fire in the mid-1980s with Less Than Zero, a zeitgeist-friendly tale of rich kids in L.A. and way too much cocaine. Ellis essentially repeated himself with Attraction but changed the setting to an elite east coast college. Readers and critics ran gagging from the bookstores, dealing Ellis's career a blow from which he has only barely recovered. In an interview, Avary noted that the challenge of filming such a time-specific book was taking the early-20s angst draped all about the place and showing how it could apply to this generation as well.

I guess. Substitute Thunderbird for coke and the Harvest Ball for the Dress-to-Get-Screwed Party and it applies to James Dean's generation. But it only works if the filmmaker has made up his mind. Is all this drugging and screwing and blank staring funny? Pathetic? A statement? Can't be all three because then you're not telling a story but yanking the audience around by the nose-ring, asking them to invest emotionally one minute then saying it's all a big ironic joke when they do.

And that's what Avary's all about here, taking delight in actors meant for the WB throwing up on themselves and then insisting than we care about them more than he does. Sean realizes he's in love with Lauren and when rejected, tries and fails to commit suicide multiple times. It's a hollow, unfunny scene made worse by the next one: Laura comes to check on Sean (if she's just dumped him, why?) to find him unconscious and bleeding on his bed. Only it's, get this, fake blood, and he laughs at her shock. That may as well be Roger Avary saying "Stupid moviegoer. You actually thought I gave a shit about these people!" Maybe he doesn't even know because he's back at it a few scenes later with everybody bemoaning their empty lives while seating on the bleachers in the dark.

With Quentin Tarantino's first new film since 1997 out next year, I'm curious as to how he's matured artistically since the alien invasion of Pulp Fiction, because the answer for his cohort Roger Avary is "not a bit." I now admire Pulp from a distance, but at the time, I found it less about artistic creation than very clever and precise angling. By making a movie where the audience found itself laughing at displays of sadistic bloodshed, Tarantino and Avary now had something interesting to say about violence, entertainment, vouyerism, you name it. They instead took the easy way out and claimed out loud it was all in service of comedy and that having the sincerity to care was for doofuses. Brilliantly, this attitude coated Pulp Fiction in Teflon, because anyone who criticized what simply not cool enough to get the gag.

And here we are again with Roger Avary taking livewire subjects and being too lazy to present in any sort of meaningful or artistic way. If Rules of Attraction was meant to be Dawson's Creek directed as a snuff film, I can accept that. That actually sounds pretty funny. But then don't give me a lot of hot air about how culturally significant all this drinking and screwing and angsting is if it's obvious the film doesn't really believe that. I may be on the twilight side of my 20s but as long as I've had breakfast, I know better.

The Rules DVD contains one of the most classic commentary tracks of all time, delivered by a surprise guest. I won't spoil who it is, as 45 seconds of Googling will tell you, but it's simply not to be missed.

This moment of self-loathing sponsored by Heineken.

Cast & Crew

Director :

Producer :

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Rules of Attraction Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, 2002


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