Adapted and directed with obvious joy and boundless verve by Roger Avary (Academy Award-winning co-writer of "Pulp Fiction") from the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel about lovesick coeds at Camden College, "Rules of Attraction" gets down immediately to its business of being a phenomenally entertaining movie fun house. In an audacious, extended pre-credit sequence that introduces the major characters, set at the first of several debauched and sour theme parties, Avary shows arrivals, chance meetings, and departures from multiple points of view, a familiar narrative device used in everything from "Rashomon" to television's "Boomtown." But the director has spiked the sequence with a great new movie drug--it has to do with reversal of both time and film, and explaining here exactly how it plays out would spoil the fun and make your head hurt besides. What's worth noting is that it's the kind of medium-exploiting stuff that makes a movie worth watching.
Happily for everyone, this is the first of four such sequences parceled evenly throughout the movie, any one of which would be reason enough to recommend it. And that's not even counting the dozen or so additional scenes that are simply hilarious, gripping, outlandish, or heartbreaking. It is the kind of movie that includes an astonishing restaurant scene with Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz playing the gin-soaked mothers of randy gay friends (one attends Camden, the other is possibly insane) that has no right being in this movie, or maybe any movie. But it is so over-the-top funny and generous that, like Ignatius J. Reilly, the moviegoing slob-hero of "A Confederacy of Dunces," I actually shouted, "Oh my God!", from my theater seat.
All of this cinema style is lavished on a group of appallingly narcissistic and self-destructive beautiful young people marooned on the campus of a remote Northeastern university. It appears to be the kind of second-rate school that breeds particularly hard-core drinking and drug abuse, and where the entire campus population can suddenly find itself seized by an epidemic of unrequited love, obsessive behavior, and suicide. (There are no fewer than three suicide attempts in this movie, each played for very different results.)
"The Rules of Attraction" documents this season in hell through the unhappy, coke-fueled progress of Lauren (a camera-loving Shannyn Sossamon, who recalls a young Audrey Hepburn/Winona Ryder), who pines after the absent Victor (Kip Pardue) but who might be interested in Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek); Paul (Ian Somerhalder, who is perhaps prettier than Sossamon), Lauren's ex-boyfriend, who chases pathetically after Sean; and Lara (Jessica Biel), Lauren's roommate, who wouldn't mind some sack time with Sean. And then there's Sean, the kind of campus stud, drug dealer, and all-around sociopath that seems to have been evenly distributed throughout the American university system. When you see Sean Bateman, you will recognize him at once and wonder whatever happened to your Sean Bateman. Surely he must be dead or in jail.
Much credit for bringing Sean to the screen, where we can all deal with him, goes to Van Der Beek, whose fine performance manages to make this monster seem human. We can sometimes hear the thoughts that float uninvited across Sean's simple mind: A typical one is "I'm hungry." What Sean has mastered in his time on Earth--and what devils those under his thrall--is his ability to appear to be thinking something else at the same time, such as "I love you, too."
Among the movie's best shots are those of Sean peering into his student mailbox to see if anything has arrived from his secret admirer. Box full, Sean happy; box empty, Sean sad. (They made me think of Ernst Lubitsch's "The Shop Around the Corner," in which a lovesick but very vain Margaret Sullavan peered in looking for letters from her secret correspondent.) Days later, what stuck about the movie was not only Avary's geek-pleasing joyrides, the playful effects, and fabulous shtick--it was the looks on the faces of characters who look for love, want it badly, and who ultimately get crushed by not being loved back, usually by Sean Bateman.
Although I could have done without the scenes involving Sean and his knucklehead drug suppliers, I could not have done without the scene in which a desperate Sean comes to collect drug money from a guy named Marc, played by Fred Savage. If there's at least one Sean on every campus in America, there's a Marc, too, and Savage captures perfectly this particular type of stoner nerd. It's a type that seldom appears in movies, and it's a safe bet that what Savage does with a clarinet and a lit cigarette here has never been seen before in any movie. An even safer bet is that on some college campus, at this moment, some poor jerk is doing the very same thing.