A scene from 'The Rules of Attraction'
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**1/2 stars
104 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, October 11, 2002
Directed by Roger Avary

Starring James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Biel, Kip Pardue, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Kate Bosworth, Eric Stoltz, Clifton Collins Jr., Fred Savage, Clare Kramer, Jay Baruchel, Joel Michaely, Russel Sams, Faye Dunaway, Swoosie Kurtz


This film is a bit of a sensory assault, so it will lose impact on the small screen. But it should still entertain -- and still polarize.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 02.18.2003


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Cinematically clever dark satire of superficial college excess is subversively amusing but doesn't quite gel

By Rob Blackwelder

Like an episode of MTV's barely-legal late-night dorm life soap "Undressed," with 20 times the creativity but without any more substance, "The Rules of Attraction" is a stylish, glib, endemically energetic diversion that's indulgently entertaining but could have and should have been deeper.

Enthusiastically adapted by Roger Avery (co-writer of "Pulp Fiction" and writer-director of "Killing Zoe") from the whimsically subversive novel by Bret Easton Ellis, it's a black comedy about the feral underbelly of modern campus life, full of cinematic invention but narrative superficiality.

Populated by teen-TV lightweight types trying to gain edgy credibility, "Rules" stars James Van Der Beek ("Dawson's Creek") in the movie's most resonant performance as antihero Sean Bateman, a deviant college cool-jerk -- who, for the trivia-minded, is the younger brother of the title character in Ellis's "American Psycho."

A boozehound campus stud who cruises parties looking for drunk coeds to take to bed, he considers himself "an emotional vampire," who now thinks he's fallen in love with another of the story's protagonist-narrators named Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), mostly because he's turned on by her professed chastity.

Clinging to the romantic notion of losing her virginity to a crush who's off in Europe for a semester, Lauren slowly abandons her ideals as she's pulled under by a party lifestyle riptide. But Sossamon ("A Knight's Tale," "40 Days and 40 Nights") is too inherently slinky to have much credibility as a virgin, so her downfall feels like a pretty short trip (even if she does give it up to a guy so drunk he throws up during sex -- was that really necessary?).

Completing a triad of loosely connected central characters is a bisexual predator named Paul (Ian Somerhalder, "Life As a House") who is drawn to straight guys -- and especially to Sean Bateman -- that don't even remotely desire his pouty kisser, chiseled cheekbones and long eyelashes.

The cinematically imaginative Avery does wonderfully wild things with split screen effects (as Sean and Lauren flirt face-to-face, we see their faces side by side), sound design and footage played in reverse (the film opens at the end of a semester, then rapidly rewinds to the beginning as the title credits run). The movie's most exhilarating three minutes are capricious fast-forward highlights of Lauren's boyfriend traveling and partying in Europe.

But while "Rules" is certainly stimulating, its narrators are shallow, callow college party-crowd people (albeit intentionally) who think they're deeply philosophical, but whose ugly psyches aren't made vivid enough to be of more than passing interest.

Eccentric supporting characters often make a more lasting impression with only one or two scenes. Eric Stoltz has a passing role as a pervert professor. Fred Savage shakes off his "Wonder Years"/"Working" image as a permanently stoned dormie. Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz are a riot as the prescription-pill-swapping, cocktail-swilling, potty upper-crust mothers of Paul and his craziest childhood friend (Russell Sams, who is trying too hard to channel both Jim Carrey and Hunter S. Thompson at once).

The film also suffers from a temporal incongruity: The book takes place in the 1980s and like "American Psycho" is meant as a dark satire of the decade's excesses. But while Avery leaves the characters' Reagan-era values and addictions conspicuously intact, he's transplanted the action to present day. Why? Probably for the sake of commercial viability in the picture's college-age target demographic.

Even collectively, these problems aren't enough to prevent anyone with a wicked sense of humor and an appreciation for clever movie-making from relishing "The Rules of Attraction" for what it does have to offer. But with so much unbridled creativity running loose, it's a pity the movie doesn't quite gel the way it should.


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