Rules of Attraction, The

dir: Roger Avary

I don't have an agenda in reviewing it favourably, and I am not that egotistical as to believe that my reviews affect people's viewing decisions. I can resolutely state that I probably got more enjoyment out of it than most people would, and probably forgive its amateurish errors more readily than I should.

Most of the reviews I read for this call it a piece of shit. Maybe they're right. It's a different proposition for me, due to the fact that I read the Bret Easton Ellis book as a teenager about a million times. The fact that the protagonists were all sex-obsessed, drug-addled, selfish, shallow arseholes was not lost on me. It really, really made me look forward to college, I can tell you that much.

So in watching the film it puts me in the position where I am very familiar with the original source material, and am judging the film according to the 'qualities' of the book or in comparison with how I pictured events and scenes taking place. In that case I am certainly biased, but not necessarily in
the film's favour.

Ellis, who achieved infamy with the publication of American Psycho oh so long ago has generally been misjudged, in my opinion. In writing about the era that he grew up in, writing exclusively in the first person, and writing about the same fucking things again and again and again, people have forgotten that he's basically doing it for laughs. Of course he wanted to be taken seriously and thought of a great American writer, with the accompanying laudatory praises of his genius appearing in the New York Review of Books or, more satisfying to his ego, articles in the New Yorker saying he was the JD Salinger of the 80s.

Those days are long gone now. He may have been considered a wunderkind for writing Less than Zero when he was so young, but people were less impressed by the time Rules of Attraction was published, which people (wrongly) called a rewrite of Less Than Zero. American Psycho made him notorious, both a massive bestseller and a pop cultural nightmare, as he transformed the archetypal serial killer from being a dirty lunatic into a wealthy Armani clad wish-fulfiller for us all. By the time he followed up on his dubious triumph with The Informers (a short story collection) and the more recent Glamorama, readers had finally caught on to the fact that Ellis had fuck-all interesting to say about anything any more apart from disaffection, a need to fuck constantly and how much fun people find in killing things.

I think what sealed it for me was reading not the increasingly gratuitous descriptions of gore and violence, or the obvious writing for his own masturbatory pleasure in sex scenes which sounded less erotic than a 200 on 1 gangbang video, but reading page upon page of celebrity and product names. In fact in one part of the book it's just celebrity names for four or five pages. Yes, I got it in American Psycho that the clearly insane protagonist was obsessed with celebrities and brand names. Doing it in every book shows that it is more Ellis himself and less the society that he excoriates that is pathologically obsessed with designer labels and famous people.

Every character in this film, as in everything Ellis has ever written, is wealthy, uses ridiculous amounts of drugs and booze, is compulsively obsessed with having sex, and is incapable of maintaining any positive connection with any other human being. The fact that it is set in a fictional New Hampshire liberal arts college is irrelevant. The film is certainly more concerned with reproducing some of the highlights of the book without giving most of the supporting material, so that it ends up looking like a confused sequence of vignettes stretched out with natty film editing techniques in order to maintain our interest.

Though the story pretends to be about a 'love' triangle between three characters, Paul Denton, Sean Bateman and Lauren Hynde, the film is nothing of the sort. Scenes between any two of the three characters make up a fraction of the running time, to the point where you find yourself wondering why they pretend they have any connection to each other. Sean claims towards the end of the film to be in love with Lauren, yet we've seen him talking to her for about 30 seconds for the film's duration.

This film, like most, begins at the end, and then tells us the preceding story. The film goes backwards a lot, then forwards again in order to (initially) tell stories from different perspectives. It's hardly that big a deal, and it doesn't pretend to be either Rashomon or Memento.

It does make me think that the director's first mistake was trying to reproduce some sections of the book too literally. It fractures the narrative and makes it look as disconnected as a student film, which this sometimes resembles, especially at its most amateurish moments. As a book that can work, as it does in Ellis's original, but as a film it looks crazed without having any of the accompanying energy. This doesn't count the hyperspeed section summarising Victor's exploits in Europe which works beautifully; any shorter and it would have had no impact, any longer and it would have become deathly dull.

The man who puts the Dawson in Dawson's Creek assays the character of Sean Bateman adequately well, except for the fact that he walks around with a perpetual scowl for the majority of the film, and overacts in a few other scenes so badly that it made me want to slap Roger Avary for not doing another take. Despite not being a sympathetic character in either book or film, Sean is the character we're supposed to spend most of our time with. One glaring omission from the book that should have made it into the film is a dinner that Sean has with his elder brother, Patrick. Yes, Patrick Bateman. How cool would it have been to see them together, if only they could have gotten Christian Bale!

Alas, it never happens. Sean as written is far nastier and more violent in the film than the book. At least it gives James Van Der Beek something more substantial to put on his resume, especially since I'm sure every time he walks down the street people yell out at him "You should have fucked Joey when you had the chance, you shmuck!"

I'm sure he'd rather be associated with this character: a wealthy drug addict that loves fucking people and fucking people over, male or female. He's not an especially complex character, in fact he's stupidly simple, but his antics are very amusing. The most disturbing parts of the film for me was having to watch him pretend to have sex. Very terrifying.

Paul (played by a very girlish Ian Somerheld) is the most sympathetic character in the book, but is just another showpony in this, with his motivations and actions and dialogue, especially towards the end, being utterly nonsensical. He spends the first part of the film basically being a predatory bisexual and the rest being all desperate over Sean, with whom he has minimal interaction with. He's acted okay in the beginning, but becomes steadily more awful as the film goes on.

Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) is the most sympathetic character in the story, and thus the most embarrassing and vulgar things have to happen to her. She's cute, well acted, but doesn't get to do very much, apart from blow Eric Stoltz. She also gets the best line of the film, which doesn't come from the book, about how "it wouldn't matter, not to people like him. People like us."

There is a level of humour pervading the entire story and the film which, if a viewer doesn't see it or relate to it on that level, means that they will find watching this film an excruciating experience, I kid you not. Whilst there is gratuitous nudity and drug use the film is never titillating in the way that your average 80s T & A classics are, nor does it have that level of cheesy fun. The sex in it is decidedly unerotic, especially when it's Dawson grunting away. This is a film that exists at the complete other end of the spectrum of contemporary college high jinks films, where it's made to looks sleazy but depressing.

Drunken college sluts. Sex with Strangers. Violent psychopathic drug dealers. Bisexuals doubling their chances of scoring on any given night. Sounds like the mixture for the feel-good hit of the summer. Alas the film is too shallow and the characters are such ciphers that the whole experience for anyone who didn't love the book or live through similar experiences is pointless in the extreme. I suspect that one's viewing pleasure could be enhanced by being drunk, but then again that remains true for practically all films ever made, with the notable exception of Pearl Harbor.

7 times losing your virginity to a stranger who throws up on you is a pretty depressing introduction to the world of sex out of 10.

"It's a story that might bore you, but you don't have to listen, because I always knew it was going to be like that" - The Rules of Attraction