Boy, young people these days … they sure are sexually promiscuous, drug-abusing nihilists, ain’t they?
When Bret Easton Ellis jumped onto the literary scene in the late 1980s as a college-age enfant terrible novelist, that was pretty much the standard Ellis story. Less Than Zero, which was immortalized on film by Brat Pack stalwarts like Jami Gertz and James Spader in 1987, captured self-destructive rich white Los Angeles kids in all their unsympathetic glory. And in Ellis’ sophomore effort, The Rules of Attraction, it was more of the same, only the kids were off to an Eastern liberal arts college so they could waste even more of their parents’ money.
Yes, that was Ellis’ story, and director Roger Avary is sticking to it in his film adaptation of The Rules of Attraction. The only problem is that it’s now 2002—and Ellis’ milieu feels about as vital as a “Doonesbury” rendering of Ronald Reagan as Max Headroom. As a filmmaker, Avary may have style to spare, but he can’t provide a single good reason to spend time with this much vapid substance.
The Rules of Attraction spends one academic year following three New England college students involved in a triangle of unrequited desire. Paul (Ian Somerhalder), a prowling gay student, pines for Sean (James Van Der Beek). Sean wants virginal Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), whom he believes is sending him anonymous love notes. And Lauren is saving herself for Victor (Kip Pardue), who’s off enjoying himself in Europe. Episodic shenanigans ensue, filling our world-weary protagonists’ lives with suicide, attempted suicide, intoxication, date rape and vomit.
If surface pleasures matter as much to you as they do to the characters in The Rules of Attraction, then you’ve found yourself a kindred spirit in Roger Avary. Keen on trotting out film-school trickery, Avary runs footage backwards from the opening credits to the story’s chronological beginning. One split-screen scene follows two characters on parallel journeys to the same location, while a later one allows one character to watch his own fantasy sequence unfold. And in the film’s most dizzyingly entertaining segment, Victor’s dope-and-sex-fueled trip across the Continent becomes a fast-motion stream-of-altered-consciousness montage. Throw in the occasional snippet of blistering dialogue and a crackling supporting turn by Clifton Collins, Jr.—current cinema’s go-to guy for drug-dealer roles—and you probably won’t be bored very often.
But ultimately, Avary can’t get past the fact that he’s telling a shallow story about shallow people. Van Der Beek, Somerhalder and Sossamon are all suitably attractive, but none of them are playing characters invested with any depth of feeling. While some sort of existential malaise clearly bugs them, it’s so ill-defined that they just come off like the cast of American Pie with a case of the blahs. They’re hedonists, but because they pout occasionally, we’re supposed to feel sorry for them and their empty pursuits. Life’s rough when you’re young, good-looking and have easy access to dope and an available bed partner.
Without any kind of moral center to his story, the film’s most painful individual moments feel all the more painful. Few scenes are more grueling than one involving Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway as oblivious, chemically addled mothers showing they Just Don’t Get It while Kurtz’s drunken son (Russell Sams) rants and makes a scene. Then there’s the spectre of TV actors like Jessica Biel and Fred Savage trying to grab a little indie cred by, respectively, prancing around in lingerie and shoving a heroin needle between his toes. Exploitation only happens when there’s nothing tying together the outrageous moments. Avary gets off on the outrageous without ever letting it go anywhere.
The most disorienting thing about The Rules of Attraction is that it’s a period piece that refuses to admit it’s a period piece. Though the clothes and cars bear out Avary’s claim that the setting is Anycollege, USA at Anytime in the last couple of decades, everyone listens to 1980s music and lives a 1980s life. The satirical social anthropology that sparked Mary Harron’s adaptation of Ellis’ American Psycho can’t take place here, because Avary is trying—and failing—to argue that this story’s themes are timeless, when in fact they’re actually weightless. It’s all sex, drugs and synth-pop, painted over with a layer of gratuitously edgy film theatrics. There’s nothing daring about a critique of self-indulgence, especially when it’s self-indulgent itself.