Sex, drugs and college: “The Rules of Attraction”

Everyone needs cocaine and sex, right? Well, they do at “Camden College.” Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ book of the same name, “The Rules of Attraction” is not your average college film. Director Roger Avary (of “Killing Zoe” cult fame) makes the claim that “it’s as different as maybe ‘The Graduate’ would be from ‘Animal House.'”

“That’s the kind of movie I endeavored to make; one that was a condemnation of the luxurious debauchery of the ruling class.”

With the only adults in the film being Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz as drunken pill-swapping mothers, and Eric Stoltz as the morally depraved professor, there is definite disapproval felt.

Each major character is introduced to the film in a party scene playing in reverse, revealing the binge drinking, date rape and drug use that happens at Camden College. Seemingly very edgy and modern, it is easy to overlook the book was written in the late 1980s. When I asked Avary how he updated the script to make it relevant to society today, he mentioned he “stripped out a lot of the cultural references.”

“I kept a lot of the ’80s music. Whenever I make a film, I try to make it so it’s temporally and spatially nonspecific, so it feels like you’re inside of a bubble reality. It could almost be anywhere. It’s really about emotions and not pop culture.”

A self-titled “emotional vampire,” James Van Der Beek leads the cast as Sean Bateman. How did Van Der Beek go from being the loveable star of “Dawson’s Creek” to the heartless king of Camden? Avary insists, “It’s easy to attack him because he’s become a teen idol, but when he took off his glasses, I looked into his eyes. I suddenly realized that they were capable of an almost cold emptiness. Almost doll-like eyes. James has an immediate likeable charisma. I felt that was the perfect combination for the film.”

Besides selling drugs and sleeping with anything remotely attractive, Bateman falls deeply in love/infatuation with Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon). He tells his friends of his obsession with her virgin innocence and purity in a scene only minutes from one of Hynde performing oral sex on the deviant professor (Eric Stoltz) for a better grade in his class. She is saving her virginity for Victor (Kip Pardue), the world traveler who is nothing short of a male slut.

Victor spends the majority of the movie in an adventure in Europe, while Hynde pines for him back home. As Victor speed-talks through his experience, digital video shows his trip. The scenes were all filmed on location in Europe by Avary himself. He and Pardue spent two weeks filming a total of 70 hours of video, later spliced into a mere four minutes of screen time. “I told Kip Pardue, ‘I want you to be in character for every waking hour and I’m going to be there filming you.’ Almost everything that you see that happens in that European trip actually happened. It was very free-form,” Avary said.

Ian Somerhalder plays Paul Denton, the Gap-ad-beautiful bi-sexual who dated Lauren and is now consumed by Bateman’s fiery disposition. Denton is easily the most captivating character in the film, and not only because of his chiseled cheekbones and feminine-looking eyes. He possesses the coyness of a predator when looking for his next sexual conquest but is also seen dancing on top of a bed in his underwear, lip syncing to George Michael. Depending on his company, Denton effortlessly switches from being unaffected to highly melodramatic.

Fred Savage makes a small appearance in the film as Marc, an incoherent drug addict who owes Bateman money. As he babbles in bed with his clarinet and shoots up, a silent movie plays (on mute) in the background.

Avary maintains that “Rules” is “a fairly accurate social satire.” Casual drug use is very prevalent in the film. In a particular scene, Lara, Hynde’s roommate, snorts cocaine and her nose begins to bleed. She laughs it off and blithely says, “Rusty pipes!”

“The Rules of Attraction” is more a stylized succession of glimpses into the lives of students than a wholly connected story. It almost works, but Avary does not quite pull it off. He explains, “I always try to make movies that have one foot in some kind of saleable exploitive element and one foot in art-house cinema.”

Unfortunately, in his quest for both these elements, vital connections are left out of the film entirely. Bateman’s behavior is never explained, and he constantly lies, leaving the viewer wondering exactly which part of what he is saying is the truth.

Entertaining as the heard thoughts of Bateman are, they are shallow and insulting to the idea of male intelligence. The thoughtful manipulation of everyone surrounding him is downplayed by scenes of Bateman looking to see what he is depositing into the toilet, cheesily singing to a girl while accompanying himself on guitar and masturbating to Internet porn. Bateman receives purple love letters from a secret admirer and laughs lightheartedly at the glitter in the envelope, but conversely blames a friend for money owed to Rupert, his drug dealer, leading his friend to be beaten.

Encompassing everything from rape captured on a home video camera to an incredibly disturbing suicide scene that just will not end, “The Rules of Attraction” captures horrifying aspects of society that tend to be glorified in movies set on college campuses. However, while making the film, Avary was determined to shed a new light on these kinds of events. By killing off Bateman’s secret admirer, Avary made a minor character significantly necessary to the plot.

“What if the extra from the background of the entire film was the one that the entire tone of the movie hinged upon? In the end her secret would have to die with her, and if [Bateman] did discover it then I would be romanticizing her suicide, and it was much more appropriate to have her suicide be completely meaningless.”

Does this film really have a moral conscience? Hardly. Every character is corrupt and twisted, and one wonders if it is worth seeing. As entertaining as “The Rules of Attraction” is, it may add to any sense of disillusionment you may already have been feeling and cause you to rethink any plans to send your not-yet-existing children to private school. Then again, James Van Der Beek is awfully sexy with a black eye.