Perhaps I’m not qualified to review a film adaptation of a Brett Easton Ellis publication, never having read any of his books – but judging by the cinema’s representation of him so far, I have no intention of doing so. Although both Marek Kanievska’s Less Than Zero (1987) and Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) attracted praise as acerbic critiques of over-privileged and valueless lives, it’s difficult to escape their calculated superficiality and nastiness. The Rules of Attraction is no different, but it also sags under an arsenal of pointless stylistic tics and relentless attempts at individualism that are more dreary and self indulgent than shocking or darkly funny.
The Rules of Attraction focuses on a trio of repulsive, narcissistic college kids: the brooding, self-destructive Sean, played by James Van Der Beek (of Dawson’s Creek fame), the brooding, self-destructive Lauren, played by Shannyn Sossamon and the brooding, self-destructive Paul, played by Ian Somerhalder. Get the idea? Sean buys drugs from a coke-addled gun nut called Rupert (Clifton Collins Jr doing a weak white trash Samuel L. Jackson impression) and sells them at a premium to his college buddies. Paul is gay and becomes fixated with Sean, as does Lauren, a virgin who is waiting for the right moment and the right guy (ill-advised in such a cynical movie).
In typically derivative fashion, all the main characters are introduced at a party and named in freeze-frame at suitably indulgent moments. Their stories are told in flashback, an excuse to use overused tricks like running the film backwards, repeatedly and gratuitously. Each character gets to do a voiceover at various stages in the film, often utilising another cliché, when the dialogue is corrected by voiceover confession ("I feel it too" / "the truth is I feel nothing"). Later we get other techniques like slow-motion and split-screen, rarely with any interesting narrative perspective.
Predictably enough, all the main characters are routinely humiliated including various unpleasant set-pieces. Thrown in with all the other self-centred decadence, there’s also an unsavoury and over-glamourised obsession with suicide. An unrequited lover slits her wrists in the bath so the water turns red, and soon afterwards, there’s an unconvincing suicide attempt by Sean, the most shallow and insensitive of the characters. There’s also a scene depicting a drunken rape in which the perpetrator throws up on his barely-conscious victim, captured on camcorder by his friend (and yes, you even get to see it backwards). Presumably these scenes are meant to expose the tawdriness of the character’s lives with cutting black humour – and of course, whether they’re funny or not depends on the viewer, but they certainly don’t offer much insight into the characters, or why they act the way they do. I’d argue there’s nothing funny about the film unless you’re amused by self-obsessed drunks, bodily functions, spoiled college rich-kids or existential angst.
Director Roger Avary worked on the stories of Pulp Fiction (1994) and directed the Tarantino-esque Killing Zoe in the mid nineties. Despite the visual trickery, the chopped-up narrative and the shifting perspectives of the various voiceovers, there’s little evidence here of the invention of Pulp Fiction, which transcended all its gimmicks and offered considerable insight into its characters – along with some classic dialogue. But Avary obviously had a good time, since he’s now busy adapting Ellis’s Glamorama. Somehow, I think I’ll be giving it a miss.