Movie review, 'The Rules of Attraction'

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Roger Avary's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' "The Rules of Attraction" is a bravura exercise in emptiness. Its flashy camera moves, backwards sequences, jumbled chronology and energetic soundtrack make you feel, at least for a while, like you're having fun watching characters who generally aren't.

Avary helped write "Pulp Fiction," and his new movie, which he wrote and directed, has a similar freewheeling quality. All that's missing are plots to drive the narrative, characters to earn our attention and ideas to tweak our thoughts.

I haven't read Ellis' novel, but its admirers call it a satire of liberal arts college life. What that translates to here is a collection of hollow young men and women drifting among meaningless encounters with sex and drugs, with a little violence thrown in.

Decadence itself seems to be the subject, the intended shock value heightened by the prominence of actors with chirpy TV pedigrees: James Van Der Beek of "Dawson's Creek" as the drug-dealing, girl-and-boy magnet Sean Bateman; Jessica Biel of "7th Heaven" as a gang-banging party girl; and, for good measure, Fred Savage of "The Wonder Years" as a heroin user.

If the movie has a focal point, it's Sean. His standoffish air and rectangular good looks attract the virginal, coke-sniffing Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon of "A Knight's Tale"), who still longs for another guy; the frustrated gay pretty boy Paul (Ian Somerhalder); and a secret admirer, perhaps one of the above, who keeps depositing love notes in his mailbox.

Sean (the younger brother of "American Psycho" protagonist Patrick Bateman, for those into the Ellis oeuvre) digs Lauren, but he's too unfocused or reticent to make his move. He never comes into focus for us either. We have no idea, for instance, why he keeps holding out on a wired, trigger-happy drug supplier (Clifton Collins Jr.).

Avary repeatedly shoots Van Der Beek in that classic Stanley Kubrick pose: chin down, eyes glaring like a madman. Thus we're primed for Sean to go ballistic a la Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" when all Avary really wants to do is show off his affection for Kubrick.

"The Rules of Attraction" is designed to be watched as a series of set pieces showcasing technique and homages, including an oblique party reference to Avary's first film, "Killing Zoe." You admire Avary's choreography during the extended prologue in which he repeatedly rewinds the action to a point where he can switch off and follow another character.

The filmmaker also has fun with split screen (and Donovan's folk tune "Colours") as he separately tracks Lauren and Sean until they meet in a school hallway, their images merging. At another point, the film abruptly takes off on an amusing, vice-filled trek around Europe with the otherwise undeveloped Victor (Kip Pardue).

Too bad Avary has such trouble mounting a simple dramatic scene. Particularly excruciating is the one in which a young drunk named Dick (Russell Sams) loudly mouths off to his mom and her friend (Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway, both caricatures) in a hoity-toity restaurant.

Just because characters are superficial doesn't mean the movie has to be, yet "Rules" never engages our emotions. Even an on-screen suicide leaves us cold; all you notice is that Avary makes the act resemble someone achieving orgasm.

Avary's alibi comes late in the movie with the line, "No one knows anyone else, ever." "The Rules of Attraction" is nihilistic, after all, so digging deeper seems pointless, right?

Sure -- but then so does watching. Doug Liman's form-busting 1999 film "Go" also offered no redeeming social value, but its energy bursts and clever twists gave you an undeniable rush.

Little that happens in "The Rules of Attraction" has any weight, even when it involves life and death. Some of its parts are nifty, but the sum of these parts is nothing.

2 stars (out of 4)
"The Rules of Attraction"

Written and directed by Roger Avary; photographed by Robert Brinkman; edited by Sharon Ruteer; production designed by Sharon Seymour; music by Tomandandy; produced by Greg Shapiro. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, Oct. 11. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: R (strong sexual content, drug use, language, violent images).
Sean Bateman -- James Van Der Beek
Paul Denton -- Ian Somerhalder
Lauren Hynde -- Shannyn Sossamon
Lara -- Jessica Biel
Victor -- Kip Pardue Mitchell -- Thomas Ian Nicholas

Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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