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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2003
Stale shock tactics reveal little new about love's rules
By KAORI SHOJI
Humankind on the American college campus plummets to a new low in "Rules of Attraction," based on the 1987 best seller by (then) naughty wunderkind Bret Easton Ellis. For those of us who remember, the novel was the interlude work between Ellis' two shockers "Less Than Zero" and "American Psycho," both of which dealt with the savage violence and emotional emptiness lurking beneath the slick, monied surface of America's young white elite.
"Rules of Attraction" seems like Ellis' smarmy homage to his own college days spent on an exclusive New England campus -- where characters were cocooned inside dorms and dorm parties, and concerns revolved around how to score the next stash of coke or sleep with the coveted freshman of the month.
Director Roger Avary, best known as the cowriter of "Pulp Fiction," takes this late '80s tale and sets it in the present (an NYU film-school student tosses around Tarantino's name in the opening sequence) but nothing in "Rules of Attraction" feels new or even current. College kids romping in and out of each others' beds, sniffing coke, partying nude, occasionally spewing remarks like "I feel like my life lacks forward momentum" -- this is all familiar and so last century.
The fact is, films about kids on the sex/drugs rampage have been at a definite disadvantage since Larry Clark came out with "Kids," a few years back, in which 15-year-olds talked about finding 13-year-old virgins to "f**k around with, so as not to worry about AIDS." In comparison, the antics of the 20-year-olds in "Rules of Attraction" seem, well, kind of stale. It was OK 16 years ago, when Ellis came out with the book -- a time when the definitive college movie of the era was "St. Elmo's Fire." Ellis' story of extravagant promiscuity, drug taking and alcoholic excess had been diverting, if not outright shocking (depending on the generation one belonged to). But that was then, this is now.
There's an unbearable "as if" factor at work in "Rules of Attraction" -- the characters all behave as though their sexual escapades and shallow emotional angst will cause gasping and shaking of the heads over what this country's youth has come to, when all that it does is leave us mildly depressed. Depressed over their banal college lives, or over our own jadedness, is difficult to say.
As for the rules in "Rules . . . " the point is that there aren't any.
The main preoccupation of campus drug-dealer cum hot item #1 Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) boils down to getting high or getting laid, preferably both at the same time. Paul Denton (Ian Somerhelder) is lovelorn over Sean who is temporarily in love with the dark, artsy Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) who craves former boyfriend Victor (Kip Pardue).
In the meantime, none of them lets love stand in the way of empty sex with whoever is handy. Quite conveniently for them, the pickings are abundant since everyone attending Camden College is annoyingly beautiful. Even the one professor who makes an appearance (played by an attractively worn Eric Stolz) is a handsome dude. The prof seduces Lauren into oral sex, though technically she remains a virgin. Sean is game for anything that catches his eye, including Lauren's roommate Lara (Jessica Biel). When Lauren walks in on the two of them in bed, Sean screams out: "Since when does love mean you can't f**k someone else?" As for "pretty boy" Paul, he goes around in a T-shirt that says: "masturbation is not a crime" and makes it a policy to hit on straight guys who treat him like dirt.
Some of the scenes have a redemptive funniness: Victor's trip to Europe for example, is shot on a videocam and narrated by him talking at a freakish speed not even pausing for breath. The gist was that he dropped acid, smoked hash, screwed around whenever and ate some intense waffles. When he returns, Lauren breathlessly knocks on his dorm room door, all smiles. But he doesn't remember who she is and there's another girl giggling on his bed. Crushed, Lauren turns away and walks off.
"Rules of Attraction" could have been about the dynamics of longing -- the original story certainly hinted in that direction. Avary's take, though, is that no emotion should be more than half an inch deep -- and he nips in the bud all opportunities for the characters to get anywhere near soul-searching. After sex with Sean, Lara turns over and starts to cry. When asked what's wrong, she whispers, "I was born in the Holiday Inn . . ." -- which any viewer will assume is an opener to something . . . anything! But Avary cuts her short and goes on to the next scene. The picture is rife with such examples and after a while, the method starts to pall.
If the director cares this little about his characters, how could he expect the audience to do more than smirk a little, and then forget everything as soon as the end credits roll up?