The Rules of Attraction (Matthew’s Take)

It was just past the midway point in The Rules of Attraction where I started to feel something other than negativity for the film. That feeling was a twinge of sadness, this time directed toward a character who previously appeared only in the background of a few key scenes — and you wouldn’t even notice her there; not until the film rewinds and shows you in flashbacks. This character doesn’t get a speaking role, and yet was better characterized than those given leading parts.

I felt this touch of emotion because the scene in question was quite sad, but also because it drove home just how far removed from real people the other characters in the film were. They are terribly unsympathetic, incredibly shallow, and self-absorbed — and put into most movies we would criticize them from being just that. Here, their lack of depth and characterization is the point, as the film’s social commentary revolves around denouncing their lifestyle, while also playing out in polar opposition to the generic Hollywood romantic comedy.

There are three main characters, and much of the film centers around their exploits at the college all three attend, and the “relationships” — or lack thereof — they get into. The first character is Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), who deals drugs and targets women to sleep with. He describes his personality as that of an emotional vampire. He eventually finds himself enamored with Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), who is saving herself for Victor (Kip Purdue), a man currently vacationing in Europe.

Lauren spends her nights looking through a book of various skin diseases in hopes that the sight will throw her off partying and potentially having sex, even though her roommate, Lara (Jessica Biel), does both of those with regularity. The final character is Paul (Ian Somerhalder), a bisexual man who has a crush on Sean, despite Sean having absolutely no desire to have a relationship with him. You can already see the interplay among Sean, Lauren, and Paul. It only gets more complicated as the film progresses.

This complication is aided by the film’s style, which jumps back and forth in time, and uses many cinematic tricks which you won’t see utilized in a great number of movies. There’s a lot of split-screen, scenes which play backward, and narration from multiple perspectives. The fourth wall is sometimes broken, too. This creates an energy and visual flourish which means you’ll always have something interesting to look at — and it creates some rather fantastic scenes — but there are points when director Roger Avary overdoes it.

The Rules of Attraction is based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, which will either draw fans or repulse those who aren’t a fan of his work. I didn’t like the last adaptation of Ellis’ work, American Psycho, and I still believe that the film does not contain much of the satire found in the novel. It comes through clearer in this movie. If American Psycho works, it’s primarily as a dark comedy. This one is more effective at making its point and being visually compelling — and an interesting and relatively well-made film.

I think that taking the characters to such extremes — there is nothing more to them than drugs, sex, alcohol — makes the film loses something. The potential for satire is there, and much of it comes through, but by being so hyperbolic we know these characters cannot exist, and therefore there’s no reason to criticize them. Exaggerating certain traits, not ignoring anything that doesn’t have to do with the aforementioned subjects, might have allowed the film to be more poignant. It’s a fine line.

One of the early lines says that the story of the film might bore you. I think it’s unlikely to do that. Even if you dislike it — and by all means, I’m sure the film would welcome the hate; it’s supposed to evoke such emotions — you will not be bored by it. There’s enough depth to hold your attention if you were to just take the plot into account. Add in the social commentary and the film’s style, and you’ve got something you won’t have any trouble staying awake.

There are a trio of really excellent scenes you will want to look out for. The first involves a split-screen sequence which, without cutting, transforms into a single shot. The second is a stream-of-consciousness montage involving Victor’s escapades through Europe, which seems to last forever — although I would wager it’s less than five minutes in length — but contains so many different moments that you won’t remember even a sliver of them. The scene I mentioned in the first paragraph is the most affecting in the film, and one of the most effective scenes I’ve ever seen.

The Rules of Attraction is a good film about terrible people. None of the characters featured in the film are respectable or anything more than self-absorbed, sex-and-drug-obsessed individuals. That’s the point. That point is effectively made, although the extreme to which it’s taken is laughable. The film is interesting and visually energetic, and I think it’s worth watching, especially for a trio of fantastic moments. You won’t see many like this one.

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