Early in the film, college boy Sean Bateman reflects to himself that he’s “a vampire who feeds off other people’s emotions”, implying that he has none of his own. Right away we’re reminded of Sean’s brother Patrick, who we met in Mary Harron’s American Psycho as his own vampiresque urges sent him on a murderous rampage. Both movies are adapted from novels by Brett Easton Ellis, but “The Rules of Attraction” is not a sequel. It contains only an off-hand reference to Patrick Bateman and the action is set on a college campus instead of on Wall Street.
“The Rules of Attraction” was written for the screen and directed by Roger Avary, best known for his hazily defined contribution to the Pulp Fiction screenplay. This ambiguity about who wrote what in the quintessential 90s film led to a feud between Quentin Tarantino and his former Video Archives colleague, and apparently Avary is still bitter about it because he’s knocking Tarantino in the first 30 seconds of “Rules”! Yet even if we abstain from passing judgement about who influenced whom, we can clearly see that Avary’s film plays almost like a “Pulp” sequel, complete with unchronological storytelling, sudden bursts of violence, an overdose scene, an extended dance sequence (to George Michael’s Faith) and Eric Stoltz in a bit part.
You could push the comparison further by saying that Avary does for James Van Der Beek (from TV’s “Dawson’s Creek) what Tarantino did for John Travolta: utterly perverting his familiar screen persona and revealing a gutsy, exciting actor. There’s really no trace of Dawson left in Sean Bateman. A dope dealer/user and a chronic masturbator who’s always thinking about sex, Sean Bateman is every parent’s worst nightmare… But it’s not like he’s that rotten apple of the bunch. None of his schoolmates cares about anything but getting drunk, getting high and getting laid either. The only time we see any of them attempt to go to class, it’s only to find the teacher himself passed out from too much partying!
The only character that’s given any depth is Paul Denton (the intensely blue-eyed Ian Somerhalder), a homosexual quasi-Beat poet. One could deplore that this character, despite his qualities, nonetheless vehicles the stereotype of the promiscuous “fag” who makes passes at every guy. Then again, you must admit that the movie is an equal-opportunity offender where everyone, gay or straight, male or female, is a shameless drunken slut. Everyone except maybe Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon), a slightly giggly virgin who forces herself to look at pictures of diseased genitalia to stop herself from succumbing to the amorality that saturates the campus air. But with her schoolgirl crush on Sean Bateman, chances are her purity is at risk…
Avary has made a film defined by excess (even more so than his “Killing Zoe”). Every other scene has people screwing, snorting blow, masturbating, shooting up or chugging Jack Daniel’s, with a bit of the old ultra-violence to complete the picture. Stylistically, excess also reigns. Avary multiplies split-screens, sequences played in reverse, ironic use of 80s pop, voice-over breaks, freeze-frames, self-indulgent scenes in which he lets actors in supporting roles (notably Clifton Collins Jr. and Russell Sams) chew as much scenery as they can fit their teeth around. And then there’s the virtuoso “Victor’s Europe trip” sequence that just has to be seen to be believed. This makes for a movie as energetic as it is aimless, as colorful as it is shallow.
“The Rules of Attraction” is having a good time being bad, but it’s nowhere near as edgy as it thinks it is. It is no more gleefully depraved than Cruel Intentions, for instance. And unlike in Roger Kumble’s film, when Avary tries to go for love and tragedy in the last act, we hardly care. If he wanted to make a nihilistic flick, mission accomplished, but he shouldn’t be surprised if audiences come out of it feeling and thinking nothing.