For an author whose novels often eschew conventional narrative, Bret Easton Ellis seems to have pretty good luck when it comes to screen adaptations of his work. Both Less Than Zero (1987) and American Psycho (2000) were neatly judged approximations of his misanthropic worldview, while Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction (based on Ellis’s second book) is a disjointed but slickly entertaining film.
The setting is Camden College, a typical American movie campus, where everyone looks like a Gap model and no-one ever seems to spend any time in classes. Sean (James Van Der Beek) is the college drug dealer, a enigmatic loner trying to make a living off the rich kids he mixes with, but already $3,000 in debt to his psychotic supplier Rupert (Clifton Collins Jr). Even though Sean is notorious for meaningless one-night-stands, he has fallen for Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), a pretty virgin who has decided that she will keep herself for Victor (Kip Pardue), an immature pretty boy currently on a tour of Europe. Paul (Ian Somerhalder) is Lauren’s ex, but who is now experimenting with his sexuality and has his sights set on Sean.
Around this emotional tangle, Avary weaves a fable of teen (im)morality that veers from the nonsensical to the powerful but is held together by some strong performances and a bagful of cinematic tricks. The director is particularly fond of reversing his film; it all opens at the ‘End Of The World’ party, and keeps rewinding a couple of minutes to same point as every new character is introduced. The movie then moves back several months and slowly makes its way to this start point; even the credits roll in reverse. All of this works pretty well and isn’t nearly as intrusive as it sounds – there’s also a terrific use of split-screen and a hilarious speeded-up sequence detailing Victor’s entire European trip in a few minutes.
James Van Der Beek utterly trashes his clean cut Dawson’s Creek image with a volatile, cock-sure performance – you may not like his character, but its hard not to fall for his charm. He is the stand-out, but Sossamon, Pardue and Somerhalder are all good, while there are amusing cameos from Eric Stoltz (star of Avary’s first film, the forgettable Killing Zoe), Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz.
However, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this may all be a lot of fuss about nothing. Sure, these kids get drunk, take drugs, sleep around and offer nihilistic epithets like “Nobody ever knows anyone”. But isn’t that what you're supposed to do at college? A powerfully rendered suicide (set to Harry Nielsen's ‘Can’t Live If Living Is Without You’) not withstanding, most of the ‘shocking’ exploits in the film could have been played equally for laughs if Avary had chosen too. Maybe this was all more disturbing in the late 80s when the book was set (the film remains curiously timeless), but not these days. And like both Less Than Zero and American Psycho, the ‘so what’ factor is fairly high... empty characters can’t help but make for a slightly empty film. Nevertheless, there’s enough on offer here to make for stylish, frequently compelling viewing.
American writer and director, best known for his association with Quentin Tarantino and his contributions to Pulp Fiction's screenplay. Other films include the heist thriller Killing Zoe and the Bret Easton Ellis adaptation The Rules of Attraction. Avary has also made the little-seen Glitterati, a spin off from the latter starring Kip Pardue, with another Ellis adaptation, Glamorama, due until he was imprisoned for manslaughter.