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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-

Judge dials down the savagery in kinder “Extract”

The best way to get a promotion from the boss (Jason Bateman)? Become, ahem, half a man (Clifton Collins Jr.) due to a horrendous plant accident.

The best way to get a promotion from the boss (Jason Bateman)? Become, ahem, half a man (Clifton Collins Jr.) due to a horrendous plant accident.

In another life, Mike Judge must have been a reporter. Every one of his movies has an angle designed to sway our sympathies in the exact direction he wants. In “Office Space,” we felt for put-upon cubicle drone Peter Gibbons, with his eight nagging bosses. With “Idiocracy,” it was Joe and Rita, average people submerged in a sea of grunting buffoons, who won our hearts (sort of). How, we wondered, would we react to a world where Starbucks sells handjobs, not venti chai lattes?

Judge’s latest comedy, the warmer, gentler “Extract,” spurs us to feel sympathy for Joel (Jason Bateman), who built his flavor extract company from the ground up and believes in treating his employees with kindness. He’s the kind of boss who knows not only his employees’ names but what their purses look like. He cares enough to pay attention when other people don’t.

In this case, those “other people” are Suzie (Kristen Wiig), Joel’s bored wife who uses sweatpants to fend off his increasingly desperate sexual advances; Brian (J.K. Simmons), Joel’s sarcastic second-in-command who calls everyone “Dinkus”; and Nathan (David Koechner), Joel’s Bob Wiley-styled neighbor who materializes daily at his car window like the pop-up book from hell. The only people who seem halfway interested in Joel are Dean (a nicely low-key Ben Affleck), an old bartender buddy who pops Xanax for head colds, and Cindy (Mila Kunis), a flirty temp a little too interested in extract to be totally genuine.

Since this is a Mike Judge movie, there are elements of the fantastic — in the form of crazy twists and ideas — lurking in all this banality, little schemes that Everyman uses to distract himself from the disappointment that fills his life. (These are Judge trademarks. Learn to love them.) Cindy’s “job” at the factory is a direct result of a freak accident that leaves Shep (the ever-subtle Clifton Collins Jr.) minus one testicle. A dumb-as-a-stump gigolo (Dustin Milligan) becomes part of a trap to entice Suzie to cheat. And there’s a bohemoth bong and a horse tranquilizer thrown in for good measure.

All this tomfoolery, however, doesn’t disguise the flaws inherent in Judge’s design. The endless plots start piling up on each other and strain the bounds of credibility. (Viewers can suspend disbelief only so far, really.) After awhile, they start to feel scattered and haphazard and a little too out-there. Maybe the reason for that is that there is no clear villain in “Extract,” no Bill Lumbergh, to focus our distaste on. Instead we’re given people like Brian, whose worst quality is disdain for his underlings, and Cindy, who knows her way around long and short cons but truly likes Joel. Judge seems careful not to demonize anyone, and he makes sure we laugh with, not at, them. Where’s the spirited satire, the biting, savage wit that made Judge a household name?

Still, that’s not to say “Extract” is a complete letdown. Far from it. There’s care in the performances, and the key players are anything but one-sided. Kunis continues to prove that she’s too good an actress for television, giving Cindy a shrewd ability to find and exploit people’s weaknesses as well as a measure of unexpected kindness. That Simmons, he has a way with withering one-liners. He’s become the go-to guy for snark. Affleck continues his recent career upswing, underacting wonderfully in a way we haven’t seen since his “Chasing Amy” days. Collins gives Shep more depth and sad pride than he ought to — what a fine actor, too fine for all these teensy parts.

At the center of all this is Bateman, who couldn’t play mean if his life depended on it. Too vulnerable and empathetic, that one. He’s so earnest a guy it’s impossible not to like him, though he may make you wonder if Judge’s gone all smooshy. I know I did. But then I looked closer, and I realized Judge’s always had a soft spot for the common man. Couldn’t villainize him if he tried. And in that light, “Extract” is the kind of humane, softer-edged comedy this average guy director has been waiting to make.

Grade: B-