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Review: “The Rules of Attraction” (2002)

If there exists a Hall of Fame for despicable characters in fiction and film, Sean Bateman deserves a prominent spot in both. Excluding Patrick Bateman (his older brother, no less), Sean may be one of the most disturbing creations to spring from the mind of author Bret Easton Ellis. He’d seem like an easy enough character to play — there’s almost no genuine human emotion to him, no regard for anyone else’s feelings or wellbeing and no interest in anything other than satisfying the rampaging desires of his id. But James Van Der Beek injects elements of iciness and menace, enough so that Sean becomes someone to fear and not simply dislike. Van Der Beek is every inch an unsetting yet seductive emotional vampire.

To a certain degree, the people who populate Sean’s world in Roger Avary’s “Rules of Attraction” aren’t beacons of morality. Only a few, like the sensitive, tortured Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), are remotely likable. This shallowness puts the film in a class by itself, since Avary is more concerned with flash than character development. The director fashions “Rules of Attraction” as a kind of anti-romantic comedy. The element of lives strung together by circumstance, is there, but that’s about it: misunderstandings aren’t smoothed over with a few lines of dialogue and swoony kisses; mistakes aren’t nicely cleaned up by the people who made them; the good don’t prevail while the bad suffer; and there’s sure as hell no happy ending. It’s not that kind of story, and Avary’s inventive shots — the best of which involves the intriguing split screen meeting of Sean and Lauren — create an impenetrable barrier between the actors and the audience. But then the isolated, surface-level world of “Rules of Attraction” is populated with young adults who fit into two categories: hunters and hunted.

The film adaptation is too fragmented to have a clear protagonist and employs some unorthodox methods for telling these students’ stories (fitting, since a straightforward narrative might mean we’d form attachments to a character). He begins the film at the end, forges ahead and rewinds to tell another story, reveal another viewpoint. After a few backtracks this method threatens to fray viewers’ patience; however, the characters’ stories have a train-wreck quality that stands up to the editing. The basic plot revolves around a love triangle emerging between three students: Sean, Camden College’s drug dealer who’s a textbook psychopath; Lauren, the girl Sean decides to be in love with; and Paul (Ian Somerhalder), Lauren’s ex who’s feeling bi-curious and cannot conceal his attraction to Sean. Floating at the outskirts of this story are Lauren’s oversexed roommate (Jessica Biel) and Victor (Kip Pardue), Lauren’s ex back from a tour of Europe and its many obliging vaginas. (One in 20 European women, Kip informs us in a whirlwind monologue, will sleep with a man who asks.) Also in the picture are Rupert (Clifton Collins Jr.), the unpredictable big-time coke dealer Sean owes thousands to, and Mr. Lawson (Eric Stoltz), the faintly creepy professor who enjoys the company of his pupils too often to claim innocence before a jury of his peers. The commonality is unrepentant narcissism; nobody in the bucolic world of Camden College has ambitions beyond scratching what itches, filling what’s empty and emptying what’s full. So when Lauren catches Sean, who’s professed to love her, in flagrante, he’s befuddled by her anger: “Since when does fucking somebody else mean that I’m not faithful to you?” Sean’s not in the habit of considering anyone’s feelings before his own, or thinking about feelings at all. He feeds on them because he has none to call his own.

Avary’s camerawork does much to highlight the vapidness of Sean and his acquaintainces (these aren’t the sort who really have “friends”), with flash edits and the somewhat grating rewind and backward motion techniques keeping our eyes occupied. “The Rules of Attraction” is a spectacle to see, much the same way “Run Lola Run” was. The Sean/Lauren split screen is one instance where Avary’s risk-taking pays off, and the extended is more than an inventive shot. It says that the characters see each other without really seeing. They never know each other, and most don’t want to.

Grade: B-