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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-

Review: “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may be many things — perverted, profane, whipsmart, cocky, a little too enamored with his own cleverness — but subtle he is not. He’s not even in the ballpark. Matter of fact, if that ballpark blew up, he wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days. Nah, Tarantino’s a guts-glory-chicks-and-explosions kind of director, and that imagination of his? In the name of Le Royale with Cheese does it dream up some wild-n-twisted trips.

Mark “Pulp Fiction” down as one of the wildest. Every nanosecond of this humdinger’s 154 minutes contains something warped/crazy/effortlessly cool to behold: philosophical discussions about foot massages, the nature of miracles and a gold watche that has been places no watch should go; murders both coolly calculated and comically accidental; a frightful drug overdose; kinky sex (think S&M with an Alabama drawl and a gimp); and, last but not least, a sinfully delicious $5 milkshake. Random as this catalogue seems, Tarantino’s film is far more scattershot. The action doesn’t adhere to a simple timeline; instead, there are three stories that run parallel, then smash together, then diverge only to reconnect in ways that boggle the mind upon repeat viewings. “Pulp Fiction” is a genius noir/gangster combo that keeps us guessing. Guess long enough, though, and patterns start to emerge from the madness.

Sort of. Since Tarantino makes it nearly impossible to understand how these stories pool into a cohesive ending, let’s tackle one beast at a time. First, there’s “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” the tale of L.A. hitmen Vince (John Travolta) and Jules (a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson) heading to do a job ordered by their loose-cannon boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). Since Marsellus recently threw a guy out a high-rise window for giving his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) a foot massage, Vince has the jitters about taking her out on the town. His plan is simple: “Chew my food with my mouth closed, laugh at her fucking jokes, and that’s it.” Of course, trouble has a tendency to follow Vince, so things don’t go that smoothly.

Smoothness doesn’t much like Butch (Bruce Willis) either, which we discover in “The Gold Watch.” A talented boxer with a sweetly innocent girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros), Butch shovels some dirt on his own grave by winning the fight Marsellus paid him to throw. But his neat double-cross turns messy through a series of freak coincidences, the most interesting involving two pawn shop owners who plumb forgot to pack their manners (not to mention their morality) when they left the Deep South. “The Gold Watch” leads into “The Bonnie Situation,” a conclusion of sorts where Tarantino himself shows up as Jimmie Dimmick, a pal of Jules who begrudgingly agrees to help him clean up an accidental hit (“my gun went off! I don’t know why!” insists the a brain matter-spattered Vance) with help from Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel). What’s on Wolfe’s business card we can’t be sure, since the terse mystery man only offers “I solve problems” as his job description.

It’s offhand comments like these that demonstrate one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths: revealing character traits with one or two stray lines of dialogue. He’s a student of human nature, and he knows the ways people fill time by arguing over whether foot massages are sensual or wondering what cheeseburgers are called in France (see above). And yet everything these characters say tells us something about themselves or the story. Christopher Walken, in his lone scene, delivers a howling-good speech that seems like comic relief, but the subject — the gold watch — comes back into play. Jules spouts a nonsensical version of Ezekiel 25:17, but it reveals his own moral code. Thurman, who finds jumpy loneliness in Mia, parlays a terrible joke about tomatoes into a real connection with Vince. Haphazard though they seem, these lines are the threads that knit everything together.

What else dazzles about “Pulp Fiction”? There’s the abundance of lurid violence — much of it comical (including an uncomfortably funny rape scene), some of it truly shocking, none of it gratuitious. Jackson and Travolta are one hell of two-man team, while Willis registers a pulse and Eric Stoltz has wit to burn. Ultimately, though, it’s the manic, fearless force of Tarantino that makes “Pulp Fiction” a sweet, sweet joyride, indeed.

Grade: A