There's not much attractive about `Attraction'

Movie Review

October 11, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When Bret Easton Ellis made his name with his 1985 novel Less Than Zero, a plotless, listless record of how a rich freshman at an Eastern college spent his first Christmas break back in Los Angeles, he complained, "A lot of the people the book is based on either aren't reading it because they don't read or are reading it as a travel guide to L.A. nightlife."

Ellis' The Rules of Attraction and the movie based upon it are peopled with college students at a "progressive" Eastern liberal arts school who again read only for the chic of it. These kids are more concerned with decadent dorm-room bashes, like "the Pre-Saturday-Night-Party Party." Ellis' characters pull off the dubious trick of being both superficial and formless; they might become compelling if Ellis or the film's writer-director, Roger Avary, plunked them into some intricate satirical design. Instead, the novelist and filmmaker pose as hipster moralists and present a parade of bad behavior.

The worst to be said about Avary's film of The Rules of Attraction is that it's largely faithful to the novel. At the core is the tale of how Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), a randy campus drug dealer with an All-American look, grows obsessed with the pure Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), because he thinks she's passing him passionate, anonymous true-love notes. At the same time, Lauren's bisexual ex-boyfriend, Paul (Ian Somerhalder), keeps trying to get Sean into bed, while Lauren pines for an absent student named Victor (Kip Pardue), who to her is a dreamboat and to us is Prince Charmless.

The movie would be a genuine sick comedy if it had any good jokes or an infection that demands inoculation. Instead, the characters simply fumble around with fantasies of each other and make appalling choices in the dark. Victor, the one with the least screen time, registers with the most satiric strength. Lauren thinks he can't wait to see her again, but a frenzied stretch of hepped-up digital video reveals him as a shameless hedonist on a feckless European tour.

Elsewhere, Avary's time-hopping deployment of all the narrative, camera and editing tricks of the post-Tarantino age (his biggest credit is still co-writing Pulp Fiction) fail to disguise the movie's puny stature. It's a druggy farce with too few laughs and a jarring penchant for preaching, particularly in a subplot about suicide.

Avary presents the most elaborate and climactic party scene first, from several perspectives. One portion of it - the debasing deflowering of Lauren - tops the film's typically ugly sex with generous helpings of voyeurism and vomiting. Basically, this announces that any humor will come from the worst happening to every character at every juncture.

The problem is, the worst is never imaginatively bad enough to get a rise from adult audiences - though it might be for teen TV addicts encountering 7th Heaven's Jessica Biel (as Lauren's roommate) and Dawson's Creek's Van Der Beek in compromising positions. Eric Stoltz, for example, plays a teacher with an odd idea of what constitutes oral exams. But people who've seen too many independent films - or, maybe, any - will react to his appearance with a big ho-hum.

Avary has taken a pig's ear of a book and turned it into a pig's ear of a movie.

Rules of Attraction

Starring James Van Der Beek and Shannyn Sossamon

Directed by Roger Avary

Released by Lions Gate

Rated R

Time 110 minutes


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