Bret Easton Ellis still sucks, movie sucks a little less

By Joseph N. Liss

The Rules of Attraction

Directed by Roger Avary

Lion’s Gate Films

110 minutes

Read almost any paragraph of Bret Easton Ellis, whether from a novel or from a blurb on the back of another writer’s novel, and you will see the embodiment of a particularly hysterical episode in American literature. His prose is constantly strained, loud, hyperbolic, and decked out with frantic razzle-dazzle, as if he is mounting a desperate assault upon his own mediocrity. He is a writer with a cause. He wants to expose the moral vacuum in the hearts of America’s young people, the dark inertia lurking behind our sex- and drug-charged nightly dissipations. He does so by wallowing in the obscene under the guise of bringing moral focus to it. This gives him the perfect cover for a writer unable to create characters: he says people have no character. His books are brimming with sex, yet his erotic sensibility resembles that of a virtuous twelve-year-old, or Kenneth Starr.

As symptoms of that black hole in American history known as the ’80s, in which we partook equally of cocaine and capitalism in the puritan orgy presided over by shaman-in-chief Reagan, it is appropriate and quite amusing that Ellis’ seriously intended fictions be adapted, a decade and a half later, to stylish millennial revelries of pop-culture like American Psycho and now The Rules of Attraction. This movie, however, is more and less than that.

Scripted and directed by Roger Avary, the infamously plagiarized then forgotten friend, fellow video store clerk, and Pulp Fiction co-writer of Quentin Tarantino, Rules of Attraction is an ambitious and admirable attempt to out-style all post-Tarantino cinematic flamboyance. Combined with a cast of young actors hungry for daring breakout roles, and savvy musical selections including an original score by Tomandandy, there are enough surprises and pleasures here to drop two hours and $8.50 on.

Rules is set at Camden College, an East Coast liberal arts school where classes never meet (we see a chalkboard message: “Wife left me for my TA. All classes cancelled”), where the one professor we see sells grades for fellatio, where everyone’s on something and every night’s a party. Strangely, I was not reminded of home. Almost all of Camden’s female population is disrobed and deflowered during the course of the movie. There is also an active gay community, represented by Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), who becomes attracted to the too-worldly drug dealer Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), who, in turn, is captivated by the determinedly virginal Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon). The love triangle plays out through parties, revenge infidelities, misunderstood love notes, and exponentially increasing morbidity and violence, revealing the rules of attraction finally to be: you will be attracted to the person who will cause you the most problems and end up hating you.

Avary does a fine balancing act, subtly drawing a burlesque over the edge of satire and giving us well-timed flashes of the abyss, all the while keeping the narrative in gear with a rich, intricate visual style (a particular tour de force is the montage where Avary limns a college student’s typically frenetic quarter abroad).

It’s not without its unevenness, of course, as demonstrated in a superfluous sequence featuring a bafflingly over-the-top character named Dick. For a director as conscious of his influences as Avary, it’s disappointing that he’s unable to think his way out of the shadows of some imposing recent films: a confrontation with a drug supplier is a frail imitation of a scene in Boogie Nights; the use of split-screen and other camera tricks echoes Requiem for a Dream; the movie begins and ends in the same scene, like Fight Club; also like Fight Club, the characters all sound as if they’ve been listening to Edward Norton’s voice-overs since they were in the womb. The characters overall might have been better scripted. The actors are good, but can only go so far with the bland, cynical nonchalance Ellis’ has supplied and Avary mistakenly keeps. This dialogic mode does, however, strikingly come into its own when Sean attempts to prove his love to Laura: “I really did try to kill myself – before I faked it.”

But Lauren is not to be had; she looks at pictures in a medical manual on STDs to overwhelm sexual temptations with moral and visceral disgust. She might as well read Bret Easton Ellis novels. Leave it to the “cooler” medium of film, in which the author’s stance cannot be as focused as it necessarily is in fiction, to save a bad book from itself. Under Avary’s direction, Ellis’ humorless, demonstrative tone becomes an atmosphere of edgy ribaldry, and his example-setting plot ploys are translated into unexpectedly poignant moments. The mixture of bleakness and flair makes The Rules of Attraction discomforting and entertaining in equal measure.