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With: James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Ian Somerhalder, Eric Stoltz, Jessica Biel, Kip Pardue, Kate Bosworth, Clifton Collins Jr., Thomas Ian Nicholas, Colin Bain, Joel Michaely, Russell Sams, Eric Szmanda, Clare Kramer, Hayley Keenan, Swoosie Kurtz, Faye Dunaway, Fred Savage
Written by: Roger Avary, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis
Directed by: Roger Avary
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, drug use, language and violent images
Running Time: 110
Date: 10/11/2002

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Following 'Rules'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When the first film from a Bret Easton Ellis novel hit the screen in 1987, irony had not yet embedded itself in our cultural landscape. As a result, Less Than Zero came across as painfully earnest and overly glitzy. Despite a daredevil supporting performance by Robert Downey Jr., the movie was saddled with the bland Andrew McCarthy as the hero, and it was by turns dull and difficult.

When Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner adapted American Psycho 13 years later, we were ready. Coming with a sly, icy smile and a dash of vinegar and wit, the movie offended all the right people and won over many more.

Less Than Zero was filmed and set in the '80s. American Psycho was filmed in the '90s and set in the '80s. Now we have Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction, which originally was set in the '80s and now is set in the present.

It may be true that Ellis was ahead of his time, but his novels are definitely tales of the '80s, and the new film just doesn't seem to fit terribly well into its modern-day suit. It's as if Avary were afraid of alienating the fan base that James Van Der Beek and Shannyn Sossamon would bring in if he'd delivered a "period piece." And yet, the '80s elements of the story, such as the pop music and cocaine fetishes, remain in place.

Still, in spite of its lack of a cohesive timeline, Avary's The Rules of Attraction comes packed with a lot of the cooler-than-thou, gut-thumping dialogue and storytelling Ellis specializes in. And why not? Avary himself helped out on the writing end of a little thing called Pulp Fiction a few years ago. He even won an Oscar for it.

The Rules of Attraction focuses on three characters: drug dealer and all-around parasite Sean Bateman (Van Der Beek), who is ostensibly the brother of American Psycho's psycho killer Patrick Bateman; beautiful, shy and confused Lauren Hynde (Sossamon), who pines away for a long-distance love; and slick homosexual Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), who can't stand the gay crowd he runs with.

In a nutshell, an anonymous wallflower keeps sending Sean love letters. He begins to suspect Lauren is behind them and finds himself developing feelings for her. At the same time, Paul falls madly for Sean, who is, we assume, not gay. (Though the book reportedly takes this a bit farther.)

Avary gives us three stories from three distinct points of view, including narration from all three characters. He opens the movie at a party (the "end of the world" party that ends the school year) and shows us all three characters' sorry fates. He then (literally) rewinds to the beginning of the year and unfolds each story intertwined with the other two.

One bravura sequence comes when both Sean and Lauren wake up early for a Saturday class. Avary splits the screen into two and shows both characters in real time as they prepare for class and walk across campus. When they arrive for class, the split screen swings sideways and converges into a wide shot featuring both characters as they meet (and flirt) for the first time.

This is Avary's first feature film since his 1994 dud Killing Zoe, and he finally seems to have shaken his association with Tarantino -- though he's still exploring, trying to find a niche for himself. One thing's for sure: He has a fine touch with actors.

I should take a moment to applaud Van Der Beek. He got off to a lousy career start with "Dawson's Creek" but gained a few credibility points by ridiculing himself in both Scary Movie and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. (He also was edited out of Todd Solondz's Storytelling.) Here he emerges as a fully-formed actor, capable of exploring darkness and unafraid of raw material.

Likewise Sossamon, who didn't exactly make sparks fly with her Big Break: Rather than clawing her way up from the bottom, she was discovered at Gwyneth Paltrow's birthday party (poor baby). But after three films, she's found a nice niche as a pretty girl in disguise, too shy to realize how to turn her beauty into power.

Ultimately, The Rules of Attraction doesn't really tell much of a story. When it ends, no one has really learned or gained anything, which is why I wish the atmosphere and the timeline had been more under control. It's really about a time and a place and a particular way of looking at things. It's about finding something cool to say.

As a film, it's secondary to American Psycho but still has claws enough to get inside you and stay there for a couple of hours.

Lionsgate released the film on Blu-Ray in 2011. It comes with five "revolving door" commentary tracks with the cast and crew, and a "surprise" commentary track by Carrot Top. It also includes a trailer.

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