The Rules of Attraction means to show the dead souls of young Ivy Leaguers and how their lives have been emptied by too much money, drugs and sex. For his sophomore film, Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary adapts Bret Easton Ellis' sophomore novel, and the results, while undeniably stylish, are ultimately sophomoric.
A half-hearted romantic triangle provides our entry to Camden University. Cash-strapped campus coke pusher Sean (James Van Der Beek), despite his transparent callousness and predatory womanizing, proves the central object of desire. He draws the attention of bisexual Paul (Ian Somerhalder), whose "gaydar" isn't nearly as acute as he thinks it is. Sean also piques the interest of the virginal Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), who's been saving herself for old boyfriend Victor (Kip Pardue) while he travels in Europe.
We meet the trio at a crowded party where each is looking for a little company, and we follow their thoughts and simultaneous actions through interior monologues and shots shown from different points of view. The rest of the film is, in effect, a flashback, showing how Sean, Paul and Lauren pursue each other through classrooms, dormitories and keggers. Rules has a keen eye for the little details of college life, the drinking games, beer-can pyramids and the student post office where Paul receives anonymous love letters.
If Van Der Beek wanted to temper his wholesome image from "Dawson's Creek," he found the ideal project. At times Rules shows the actor crossing his eyes in orgasm, sitting on the toilet, punching a woman, picking his nose and, in the image you most want to shake, masturbating to the tune of "Afternoon Delight" on the soundtrack. At times he lowers his brow in a lazy, close imitation of a Kubrick psychopath, but Van Der Beek mostly provides a credible characterization. He suggests that Sean has just enough self-knowledge to realize that he's a jerk, but not enough to make any improvements.
Rules finds all of its inhabitants worthy of contempt. A professor (Eric Stoltz) wants to take as much sexual advantage as possible without jeopardizing his tenure. Paul's gay friends are always having hissy fits. Judging from Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway's cameos, the students' wealthy parents pop pills and spoil their offspring. It's a toss-up as to whether the worst over-acting comes from Clifton Collins as a drawling, trigger-happy drug dealer or Russell Sams as Paul's inebriated, tantrum-throwing pal "Dick."
The storytellers themselves seem unsure whether Lauren deserves disdain. Her bitchy-bimbo roommate Lara (Jessica Biel) has almost the same name, suggesting they're interchangeable. But Sossamon gives a likable performance. Her sly smiles and sad eyes are neither cloying nor angsty, suggesting that Lauren deserves a softer judgment than Rules' take-no-prisoners moralism.
Ellis' affectless fiction has always suited Truman Capote's estimation of On the Road: "That's not writing, that's typing." Previous film versions have tried to enrich his work to mixed results. Less Than Zero became a heavy-handed Just-Say-No public service announcement, but Mary Harron's American Psycho offered a malicious satire of 1980s greed, and arguably the book itself.
Rules makes the mistake of taking Ellis at face value, and after a while you realize the film has nothing to say that isn't expressed in its first five minutes. Clunky symbols include a get-together called "The End of the World Party," Paul describing himself as an emotional vampire and clips of German Expressionist films on student VCRs, where "Spongebob Squarepants" would be more appropriate.
Avary's energetic, busy directorial approach could be called The Rules of Distraction, substituting for substance. He employs some clever split screens, as when we follow Sean and Lauren separately until they encounter each other, and as they talk, the images blend together to fill the screen. Victor's European vacation gets an effective recap with fast- forwarded home movie shots and fragments of description.
Avary's first use of reversed photography is his most effective, as an empty keg rolls backward down a hallway, proving an oddly ominous portent of impending doom. But Avary uses the same kind of visual flourishes so often that they feel increasingly desperate.
The central triangle in The Rules of Attraction evokes Threesome, an overlooked film from 1994 that also addressed collegiate sexual experimentation, but with genuine regard for its characters. The Rules of Attraction flirts with the idea that one person can never really know another, but the film never goes all the way.