Almost everything you need to know about Roger Avary's swaggering adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' 1987 novel "The Rules of Attraction" happens in the movie's first 10 minutes. At an "end of the world party" where she's had too much to drink, a college freshman named Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) follows a film student into a bedroom where she expects to lose her virginity. Lauren keeps drifting in and out of consciousness, which is why it takes her a few seconds to realize that the guy flailing on top of her isn't the film student because the film student is recording the scene with his digital camera. Resigned or too drunk to care, Lauren shuts her eyes--whereupon the stranger vomits all over her face.
That's repulsive, but what makes it noteworthy is that in the book the guy doesn't throw up on the girl--he uses a wastebasket. There's something to be learned from what's been added to an adaptation, which can be as instructive as the stuff that's been omitted. Avary adapted the novel into a screenplay as well as directed the film, and in addition to the regurgitation tweak, he's added a temporal kink not in the original story. Rewinding the action so that people and beer flow in reverse, he shows Lauren and the film student walking backward out of the bedroom and into the party, at which point the story picks up with another character, who announces that his "life lacks forward momentum." It isn't the only thing in the movie that does.
As in the book, the film revolves around three undergraduates at an elite New England college that sounds a lot like Bennington, the school Ellis attended in the mid-1980s when he published his first novel, "Less Than Zero." "The Rules of Attraction," the author's second book, centers on a drug dealer named Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), younger brother to Patrick Bateman, the eponymous serial killer from yet another of Ellis' titles, "American Psycho." Everyone on campus seems to have a thing for Sean, including Paul (Ian Somerhalder), a senior who once went out with Lauren, who, in turn, soon finds herself attracted to and repulsed by the big pusher on campus.
Both the novel and film of "The Rules of Attraction" are stitched together from competing interior monologues steeped in narcissism and the sort of self-conscious anomie on which a thousand and one teen stories have burned bright. The book is set during the mid-1980s, a fertile period for Ellis' brand-name lampooning. For him, college is a hunting ground in which no one ever goes to class, cracks open a book (much less a smile) or gives serious thought to the future, including such then-hot causes as ending apartheid. When they're not imbibing dope, partaking in sexual musical chairs or feeling oppressed by their parents' money, the characters are riffling through high and low culture like bored teenagers flipping through bins of used CDs.
To underscore the sheer meaningless of, like, you know, life, every so often someone mentions the "postmodern condition," which Ellis seems to think is another word for alienation. It's this sense of juvenile despair that likely appealed to Avary, who, because he takes the characters and their discount ennui as gospel, manages to turn a parody of adolescent angst into a pricey exploitation movie. The principal problem for Avary is that in contrast to Ellis, a writer whose slippery point of view tends to send up the characters he enshrines (intentionally or not), the director doesn't have the gift of speaking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. However many crude jokes he cracks, Avary takes these kids seriously.
Priming the pump of adult outrage comes with being young, as does showing off. When one of the characters in the film slits her wrists, the suicide is as flamboyantly staged (and lovingly shot) as a Vegas floor show. Avary, whose other feature is the shock caper film "Killing Zoe" (1994) and who remains best known for co-writing "Pulp Fiction" with Quentin Tarantino, isn't one to indulge in empathy, particularly if gets in the way of a cool setup. His film is crammed with such showboating technique. The camera prowls and zips for some Brian De Palma loop-de-loop by way of David Fincher. In one scene, the screen splits into two halves that are subsequently fused together; in another, a fantasy takes up one side of the image while reality weighs down the other.
Set in an ambiguous time period that looks like the present but is rife with 1980s touchstones (pop music mostly), Avary's film exists in a vacuum. It's as hermetically sealed as a Hollywood backlot or one of those dystopian Shangri-Las from the movies; the off-campus world exists solely in the local dealer's shack or as a ribald restaurant scene with Paul's mother (Faye Dunaway). The exception is a cleverly accelerated interlude in which a character named Vincent (Kip Pardue) narrates his recent whirlwind tour of Europe with the animation and run-on sentences of a speed freak. The sequence is funny and a relief--a welcome escape from the campus sturm und drang.
It isn't just that there's no place for the outside world in the film--no one is glued to CNN or even MTV News--it's that there's no place for meaning. Bubble boys and girls trapped inside their own self-consciousness, Avary's characters drift from dorm to dorm, party to party. The boys are cool, the girls are hot and none of them are interested or interesting. However little Ellis' characters studied, at least the author's vanity meant his undergraduates knew the names of the books they weren't reading. Avary entertains no such worries. One dorm wall flaunts a Robbie Conal poster, but the film's cultural references are primarily confined to music and movies, including a wincing reference to Tarantino.
That reference is as mystifying as it is embarrassing, and also comes in the film's first 10 minutes. As with the early reversed footage, all the Tarantino mention does is make you think that Avary somehow means to go backward in time, and, in some respects, that's what he does. There's a Blondie song on the soundtrack, even an allusion to Tom Cruise's BVD dance in "Risky Business." The actress who plays Lauren recalls Winona Ryder, while the actor who plays Paul resembles Rob Lowe, two more blasts from the teen-movie past. Like Van Der Beek's noisily hyped role as a bad boy, though, none of it adds up to anything. Cinematic pyrotechnics aside, the only thing Avary seems to care about are mean giggles and pulchritude. It makes sense that he went back to school to check out the girls--his film is a frat boy's idea of a good time.
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, drug use, language and violent images. Times guidelines: adult language and themes; plus a graphic razor-blade suicide, some casual violence and a lot of emotion-free sex.
'The Rules of Attraction'
James Van Der Beek...Sean Bateman
Ian Somerhalder...Paul Denton
Shannyn Sossamon...Lauren Hynde
Thomas Ian Nicholas...Mitchell
Eric Stoltz...Mr. Lance Lawson
A Kingsgate Films production, released by Lions Gate Films. Writer and director Roger Avary. Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Producer Greg Shapiro. Director of photography Robert Brinkmann. Production designer Sharon Seymour. Costume designer Louise Frogley. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
In general release.