Rules of Attraction, The (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Once you get past all of the wild camera tricks and visual gimmickry, you arrive at the core of The Rules of Attraction and find out that it's really about something other than replicating the party life at a New England college. Working from his own screenplay, which has its roots in the Bret Easton Ellis novel, writer/director Roger Avary (best known for co-penning Pulp Fiction, and for helming Killing Zoe) spins a yarn about the pain of unrequited love that is at times darkly funny and at other times depressingly tragic. It's safe to say there aren't any movies out there quite like this one.

It is possible to consider The Rules of Attraction to be an anti-romantic comedy. The Hollywood convention is that, whenever a boy meets a girl, love will follow as quickly as the clichés allow. In real life, sex and romance are less perfect, and, in not giving in to the "love conquers all" mentality, Avary's film uncovers an important truth about male/female relationships – that attraction isn't always mutual, and, even when it is, happily-ever-after is frequently not the result. Each of the three protagonists in this movie is in love (or lust, or whatever), but none of them finds their feelings reciprocated to the same degree.

The movie's approach might make viewers think of Memento as straightforward. The Rules of Attraction begins at the end, then, after moving forward a little, backs up (literally going backwards), then re-starts, following the actions of a different character. After another iteration, we have the opening credits, where time is going in accelerated reverse, until we're months in the past, and we get to see how the characters arrived at the point where we first came in on them. Got it? After you get the hang of it, it's not too confusing – at least most of the time. (In keeping with his penchant for moving in reverse, Avary presents the end credits in that fashion, starting with all the disclaimers at the end and having the titles roll from the top to the bottom, rather than the other way around.)

James Van Der Beek plays Sean Bateman, a student at Camden College who spends most of his time dealing drugs and sleeping with women. Sean is attracted to Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), and is convinced that she has been leaving anonymous love letters in his mailbox. Meanwhile, although Lauren isn't indifferent to Sean, she has given her heart to her bum of a boyfriend, Victor (Kip Pardue), who has taken off to spend some time wandering around Europe. It is her intention to lose her virginity to him. (She spends her spare time studying pictures of the effects of STDs in an effort to keep her hormones under control.) Then there's Paul (Ian Somerhalder), who used to date Lauren but is currently exploring his bisexual side and has developed a huge crush on Sean. Sean, being self-centered and strictly hetero, is oblivious to Paul's feelings.

From a visual standpoint, The Rules of Attraction is a busy motion picture. The film is filled with flash edits, scenes played backward, and split screens. At times it works (such as the split-screen sequence in which Sean and Lauren approach one another), but, on other occasions, it's too much. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that Avary's approach gives the movie a kind of restless energy. You may despise all of the characters and view their interactions as shallow and petty, but the film is unlikely to bore you.

As with Killing Zoe, Avary has decided to focus upon a group of nihilistic, self-absorbed, drugged out individuals. (Another curious similarity – both movies feature clips from silent German expressionist films: Nosferatu in Zoe and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari here.) Avary's view of his characters is cynical and unsympathetic, sometimes to the point of cruelty. There are times when he wants us to laugh at them, and we do. But we don't always feel good about doing it. The Rules of Attraction is not mainstream fare, but it is quirky and interesting, and worth a look for those who don't mind movies where you end up despising just about everyone who has a speaking part.

Rules of Attraction, The (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2002-10-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Drugs, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1