After the critical success of American Psycho, it was inevitable that Bret Easton Ellis novels would become hotter commodities in Hollywood. True, Less Than Zero was released in the mid eighties, but it didn't have the same impact as Christian Bale in American Psycho. Two years later, director Roger Avary released The Rules of Attraction, a myopic and unsettling look at emotional and sexual depravity in a New England liberal arts college. The subject matter is not for everyone, not for most, as the events that unfold are disturbing on a regular basis. This is one of the darkest of dark comedies, and critics and audiences met it with a mix of anger, disdain, and indifference. A few critics bought into the darkness surrounding college students wandering through sex drugs and parties without much consideration for their own personal safety. Most critics despised the picture, as evidenced by the 43% Tomatometer. Roger Ebert called the characters "shallow, selfish, and greedy." Mark Caro called the film "a bravura exercise in emptiness."
But there are things that work in The Rules of Attraction. Most of the depravity and the narrative works for a variety of reasons. At times, the film plays like the work of a mad genius, and there is no other way to describe Bret Easton Ellis.
EXHIBIT A: The Inspired Cast - All throughout The Rules of Attraction, recognizable actors and character actors appear. Satellite players like Eric Stolz, Kip Pardue, Kate Bosworth, and a startlingly funny turn from Fred Savage litter the nihilistic landscape of the university. And, believe it or not, one Faye Dunaway makes an appearance as a pillhead mother alongside Swoozie Kurtz. but don't look past the leads here. In the forefront is the one and only James Van Der Beek, shedding his squeaky clean image as Dawson to play Sean Bateman, the most disturbed and wicked of the students. Bateman is the catalyst for the film, a seething, angry asshole who can only see himself everywhere he goes. It's clear Van Der Beek's motivation here, to shed his goodie-goodie image as the character he played for a decade on the WB, and he goes full force into the role.
And despite Ebert's claim that there is no way in for the audience because these characters are all despicable, I disagree. The access point for the audience is Shannyn Sossaman, who plays Lauren Hynde. Lauren can see the forest through the trees, and she wants to succeed despite sharing a dorm room with a coke-snorting slut (Jessica Biel, dark but funny as well). Lauren is the innocent here, she is a way in for the audience as they find ways to sympathize with her throughout the story.
EXHIBIT B: The Look - There is a great deal of inspired camerawork and a certain visual beauty in The Rules of Attraction. The tricks work in a story about parties and college idiocy, otherwise they would feel self-indulgent. At times, the narrative reverses back on itself to the beginning of a party, showing these characters being re-wound on the screen. It plays into the repetitiveness of these students' lives. Split screens are employed at times effectively. But the most impressive camerawork is a brief scene where Kip Pardue's character, Victor, describes his rapid-fire trip through Europe. The scene is fast and furious, and read in a monotone from Victor which plays like the spewing of a mad poet. Overall, the indulgence of the film itself overloads the picture with a great deal of energy and immediacy.
EXHIBIT C: The Light and The Darkness - It may be hard for many people to find the humor in The Rules of Attraction, but it is there. This is one of the darkest comedies ever, but so was American Psycho, and most people couldn't see the brilliant humor there either. The funniest scene here involves Ian Somerhalder's trip to see his mother (Dunaway) and friend, a drunk asexual played by Kavan Reece. Reece is a wild drunken idiot who causes a scene in a restaurant that is side splitting. This is one of a few comedic moments that audiences need not feel guilty about laughing at, but there are plenty of darker moments worth laughing at. The scene with Fred Savage shooting heroin into his toes is disturbingly funny. Bateman's suicide attempt in his dorm room is another moment that may play too dark for more conservative viewers, but there is humor here as well.
At the same time there is a line of seriousness throughout the picture. A suicide the night of a big party is a poignant moment for the film. It shows that while most of these students don't regard their own body or life with any sort of reverence, there are still some students who take things too far. And of course there is Sossaman's Lauren, heartbroken and lost amid the nihilism.
IN CONCLUSION - The Rules of Attraction will turn off most viewers, and that is understandable. This is not an accessible picture for most people, and it takes some work but it might be worth a revisit for anyone who hated it initially. The cast is wonderfully diverse, and all convicted in their roles, the camera tricks add great energy, and there is a hint of serious narrative amid the chaotic, dark humor.