By Brian Rentschler
Short version: This movie was so bad that it was almost painful to watch.
This movie, unlike the book, was not set in the 1980's, opting for present-day instead. That was a mistake for several reasons:
- Ellis' book had the story taking place in the 1980's.
- One of this movie's main characters, Sean Bateman, is the brother of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, which was set in the 1980's. Their familial connection is obfuscated by setting the stories so far apart timewise.
- It was a different time and culture in the 1980's. People's views, practices and motivations were not the same as they are today. Take American Psycho, for example. That movie is just as much about the 1980's as it is about Patrick Bateman. The political and social aspects of that decade are part of the essence of that movie. As a movie, The Rules of Attraction has none of that. By removing the most essential building block of the story, all this movie has left is a group of annoying, unsympathetic characters, and not much of a point to make.
The story is set in Camden College, a fictional school in New England. The film's
protagonist main character is Sean Bateman (played by James Van Der Beek), who is not only an all-around jerk, but also a drug dealer to boot. Every time he sees his supplier, Rupert (played by Clifton Collins, Jr.), he nearly loses his life, which I'm assuming is supposed to be funny in some way. Early into the movie, Sean meets Lauren (played by Shannyn Sossamon), who is apparently ready to lose her virginity to the right guy. In her case, the right guy is Victor (played by Kip Pardue); the only problem is that she can't even get Victor's attention, so she turns her attention to other guys, including Sean. As you might imagine, Sean is quite attracted to Lauren, so much so that he can't seem to do anything right when he's around her. He's also attracted to Lauren's slutty roommate Lara (played by Jessica Biel), and there are a few awkward scenes to really emphasize that point. Doesn't sound too complicated, right? Oh, but there's a twist. (Isn't there always?) Lauren's former boyfriend Paul (played by Ian Somerhalder), who is bisexual, is also attracted to Sean, who is straight. And as if poor Sean's life isn't already complicated, he's also receiving notes from a secret admirer.
Is your head hurting yet? Welcome to my hell... So now there are all kinds of questions to be answered; the problem is that the audience isn't compelled to care about the answers to any of them. Will Sean be able to deal his drugs in peace without being hurt or killed by Rupert? Will Lauren end up losing her virginity? If she does, will the experience be what she hoped? Will Lara end up sleeping with every guy on campus by the end of the movie? Will Sean realize that Paul's interactions with him are more than just friendly? And if he does, what will he do about it? Will Sean find out who his secret admirer is? And if he does, will it be the person he hoped it would be — or at least the right gender?
Among this movie's many weaknesses, the biggest one is that it has no likable characters. Everyone in this movie is an idiot. To the movie's credit, I will say that Sossamon and Somerhalder do an admirable job of playing their respective characters, Lauren and Paul. Those two characters are almost likable at various points, but even they eventually succumb to stupidity. Not even cameos by Faye Dunaway, Swoozie Kurtz and Fred Savage can pull this movie out of the gutter. Some of you may be thinking, "Of course they act like idiots! They're in college, plus that's the whole point of the movie/book!" I can accept both points as valid, but consider the example of American Psycho. The main character in that movie was extremely vapid and shallow, but I found it reasonably enjoyable. And how about Pulp Fiction, which featured hitmen and thugs as its main characters? That's a great movie; I still enjoy watching it. And can you think of a better example than Dumb and Dumber for main characters who act like idiots? But I thought that movie was hilarious. It didn't matter so much what the characters acted like; it was more about how much incentive the movie gave us to care about what happened.
As I watched The Rules of Attraction, I struggled to find an incentive to care about a single one of the characters, or even the story in general. I just couldn't do it. The way the movie told the story made it impossible for me to become involved with the characters. As an example, here is only a partial list of awkward and/or disturbing things the movie could have done without:
- Several male characters are shown masturbating.
- A male character, presumably trying to express teen angst, acts like an alien is about to pop out of his stomach.
- Multiple characters attempt suicide.
- A teacher offers a female student a better grade in return for sexual favors.
- A character is raped.
On their own, each of the above items might qualify as an integral element of a more fleshed-out story, but in the context of general college life, they all seem like they're only there to add to the shock value. They do little or nothing to help us understand the characters better or care about them more; in reality, it's more like the exact opposite.
In anticipation of the death threats and "you're a moron" posts that sometimes follow my negative reviews, I'll try to head some of your concerns off at the pass. I have seen Roger Avary's previous writing/directing effort, 1994's Killing Zoe. I thought it was OK, nothing great. It had a gritty-action feel to it, but lacked the necessary wit and depth to be truly enjoyable. As I mentioned earlier, I have also seen the movie adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel, American Psycho, which had its flaws but was reasonably enjoyable overall. But in the case of The Rules of Attraction, almost everything was wrong. The story, the setting, the pacing, the character development... just about everything hit a sour note for me. I don't think the film was bad for lack of technical competence; Roger Avary and the majority of the cast (especially Sossamon and Collins) have done great work in other productions. Their combined talents were just horribly misused here, in a way that made almost no sense to me.