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-

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18 Responses

  1. ”You wanna fuck? You wanna fuck? You wanna fuck?”
    ”It’s not Richard. It’s DICK!”
    ”So typical.”
    ”Are you crying? I told you I came, alright?”

  2. The book gave my then-virgin-to-Bret-Easton-Ellis eyes herpes, I swear it.

    The whole movie, I want to say it’s Adaption Distillation, y’know, but I can’t really think of a way it could’ve been executed better. Ellis isn’t very big on character development, at least not in early years, and I always wonder why the movies always change the over-saturated, dead-eyed blonde protaganists into less Hollywood conventional brunettes with some semblance of a positive personality.

    So yeah.

  3. What the hell happened to Shannyn Sossamin… that chick is hot and she’s disappeared. BRING BACK MY KNIGHT’S TALE BEAUTY!!!
    As far as Rules of Attraction, I remember not liking it a ton and the whole Bateman crossover thing being a distraction more than anything else!

  4. The movie was all right. There was parts of the movie that I liked, but overall it was a mess. If you are making a film about unlikable characters, don’t bother making it at all.

  5. Who was cool enough to force your hand to watch this. It’s a scary movie because it’s shows us that each one of us has a Bateman (Sean or Patrick) inside of us…(or maybe that’s just me)

  6. you see, normally im a real stickler for ‘this film has to have likeable characters’ – see my Iron Man 2 review if youre bored.
    but it didnt bother me in Rules of Attraction, possibly cos the whole point is that theyre not likeable – in a superhero film for instance you need someone to root for – but not here.
    this is just such a great film. i first saw it in what i think is one of the smallest cinemas in England, in Nottingham.
    why Van Der Beek didnt go on to superstardom after this always astounds me. you look at the guff they hand out Oscars for these days and compare it to his performance, which is riveting from start to finish.
    one of the best soundtracks in a film i can remember in recent, uh, memory.
    and youre right about that splitscreen bit – Donovan, what a great singer

    • @ Simon/Ripley — I agree; this is how I think Ellis would have wanted his characters to look onscreen.

      @ Kaiderman — Sossamon never did it for me, and I am a woman who is not ashamed of my girl crushes. I kind of dig the Bateman crossover because it shows you how different these two characters are despite some disturbing similarities. Also, in the film their connection is extremely played down (is it even mentioned?)

      @ Branden — Normally I’d agree, but sometimes I need a break from likable characters. Any film made out of an Ellis book is that break.

      @ Ross — Wow, this is the longest SERIOUS comment you’ve ever left. I’m touched. Truly touched. I see you got the point of the movie, which is that 98% of the characters are despicable. There are despicable people in life; why aren’t there more films about them? Plus, I went to college, and I can say I met A LOT of students like this. It’s accurate. And you’re right about Van Der Beek — he cast off the shackles of his “Dawson’s Creek” image with this and his cameo on that episode of “Criminal Minds.” He has a capacity for menace that scares the bejeezus outta me.

      • I do believe they mention it at one point in the film but it’s been a while.

      • M- The relationship is mentioned once when Sean answers the pay phone in the hall and doesn’t know who it is. He says “Patrick?” It’s not suprising that they are related. Every Ellis novel has characters that cross over. Sean is in American Psycho and the dude who goes to Europe in this one is the hero of Glamorama, just to name a few.

      • did you just calle me ‘serious’?
        that hurts

      • did you just ‘calle’ me a bad speller?
        that would be totally justified

  7. Disturbing, but ultimately effective, like most of Ellis’ film adaptations.

  8. What does it take to get a C around here?? 😉

    • I believe I gave “Dummy” a “C” … the last “D” was “Sex and the City 2,” although I almost gave that one an “F.” You bring up a good point, though — I need to watch more mediocre movies. I tend to gravitate toward ones I think I’ll like, or ones I know I’ll hate. The “meh” ones in the middle get left out. It’s hard to review the “meh” films, though.

  9. I saw this movie the summer before I went off to college and it really stuck with me. I loved it even more while I was actually in college because I did meet people like Sean, Lara, Lauren and a whole lot of Richards and Pauls (not that I mind). But my favorite character (and I wish the film had more of him) was Victor. The way he realized the emptiness of his life despite the things he’s seen and experienced was very sad. It helped me stay true to myself over the last 4 years so this movie will always be special to me.

  10. Good review although maybe I didn’t like it as much as you. You know, when this came out, Ellis really stood behind it, saying its the best representation of his work to ever be put on screen (he vocally experessed his displeasure with American Psycho and Less than Zero) but in a way, I think that’s why this film is a failure: it’s too inherently Ellis. Andre Bazin once wrote that in order to adapt something one must find the cinematic essence. To adapt Ellis faithfully is would be impossible since his work, with it’s ramblig plots, characters being confused with one another, constant repetition, etc, would be impossible not least because, at some points it’s barely even readable. That’s why I think those other two films worked so much better, they took the Ellis story and found a way to tell it cinematically. This film is too close to the original work to ever succeed, but it certainly fails interestingly.

  11. I read the book and it’s always difficult to create a good movie on Ellis’ books. In my opinion American Psycho was better, even if I like this one too. Ellis always scares me to death… I have to do something about it! lol

  12. […] R is for “The Rules of Attraction” […]

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