The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #575


Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 11, 2002
Sub-Genre: Black Comedy/Drama
Country of Origin: United States/Germany
Budget: $4,000,000
Box-Office: $11,819,244
Running Time: 110 minutes
Director: Roger Avary
Producers: Roger Avary, Greg Shapiro
Screenplay: Roger Avary
Based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis
Cinematography: Robert Brinkmann
Score: tomandandy
Editing: Sharon Rutter
Studios: Kingsgate Films, Roger Avary Filmproduktion
Distributor: Lions Gate Films
Stars: James van der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Biel, Kip Pardue, Clifton Collins, Jr., Thomas Ian Nicholas, Russell Sams, Faye Dunaway, Swoosie Kurtz, Eric Stoltz, Fred Savage, Theresa Wayman, Kate Bosworth, Jay Baruchel, Joel Michaely, Clare Kramer


Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] The Cure “Six Different Ways”

[2] Yazoo “Situation”

[3] Blondie “Sunday Girl”

[4] George Michael “Faith”

[5] Erasure “Stop!”


What are the rules of attraction anyhoots? What is it that really gets our motors running and is too much of it in any danger of flooding our engines? If memory serves, I sussed out my own preferences back around the time of sixth form college and will hold my hands up to being guilty as charged with regards to being easily swayed when it came to suitors. It’s ludicrous when you think about it – act like a dick, and chances are you’ll have them falling at your feet whereas, come across as too nicey-nicey, and you’re considered far too pathetic to step out with.


Heaven forbid that you reveal your needy side as that offers the most blatant indicator of your lack of partner potential and you’ll be dumped in half the time it takes Kim Kardashian to shit a spicy Indian curry. Talk about a mindfield. No wonder teenagers wind up listening to death metal and carving People=Shit into their forearms.

Ultimately it’s all about status back then and, should you have made it through adolescence without being branded a pariah, then you may just stand a shot at grabbing yourself that elusive prom date. Girls are inevitably drawn towards the bad boys, while we lads are willing to overlook any lack of intelligence in favor of a pair of jiggling jugs.


I’m generalizing of course but the slipper fits more often than not in areas heaving with the spoiled and over-privileged, which just so happens to be the main focus of Roger Avary’s criminally overlooked 2002 black comedy The Rules of Attraction. Don’t let the “C word” fool you, all emphasis here is on blackness and that just makes this movie all the more delectable as it catches you with your hand down your pants and demands that you let it sniff those digits.


For your first clue, you need only look at the source fiction from which Avary adapted his screenplay. Bret Easton Ellis has a canny knack for writing characters who we’re pretty sure we should be hating but cannot help warming to despite our best attempts to loathe them. This doesn’t always convert well to the silver screen and Paul Schrader’s The Canyons offers a prime example of how easy it is for something fairly fundamental to become lost in translation. Focusing on a handful of characters, all of whom were of varying levels of despicable, it was nigh-on impossible to root for anyone and this killed stone cold dead any chance Schrader had of earning our investment little more than an act into proceedings.

On the other hand, we have Mary Harron’s American Psycho which, regardless of whether or not she took a few liberties here and there with his written word, managed to fashion one of the most quotable anti-heroes in modern cinema in the unforgettable Patrick Bateman. There’s a fine line to walk and I’m thrilled to report that The Rules of Attraction does so with swagger to spare.


Searching for reasons to back this race horse? Then look no further than the opening scene which places us right in the thick of fictional college Camden’s barnstorming “End of the World” party, tanks us up with cheap ale, spins our asses on the spot to the tune of sufficient revolutions to give Wonder Woman a nosebleed, whips our pants down in full view of the lustful belle shooting pool in the “cool room”, and does so with such a matter-of-factness that we just know Avary remembered to pack his A-game prior to insertion.


Timelines are disrespected, faces puked on then miraculously unpuked on, billiards reframed on perpetual loop, barrels rolled upstairs then returned to sender directly afterwards and, while that may sound confusing as all hell, it all makes perfect sense due to the confidence of a dude who co-conceived the original story for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction for chrissakes. Predictably, this is an easy gig for Avary.


During this fifteen minute optical orgasm on rewind, we are introduced to our main players and, needless to say, they’re all culpable of making some fairly insipid life choices. So why should we give have a solitary shit and a shot of piss about any of them? That’s easy, we were that age once and can identify. You think we’d be proud of our exertions if we cast our minds back? Of course not, we’d hang our heads in shame by the time the third tequila gets knocked back and we damn well know it.


Black comedy may not be everyone’s bag and this is often because it makes us feel uncomfortable. There’s a word for that – honest – and we appreciate the hell out of Avary for keeping shit real, while seducing our retinas with something far more of the unreal strain. Now that, my fellow pledges, is what I like to refer to as a pincer movement on our senses. Can I get a booyah?


So let’s start with Sean Bateman (James van der Beek) shall we? And yes he is the younger brother of Patrick in case you were wondering. There’s our first clue right there that we’re gonna be shit kicking with wrong ‘uns for the next 110 minutes. Sean is not what you would call anything other than a downright narcissist and he has evidently been taking tips from big bro as his contempt for those around him frequently spills over by way of actions that are only ever intended to benefit Sean.


Yet it is almost impossible not to find yourself wishing to slather the side of this dude’s face, just to see whether any of it rubs off. Make no mistake, van der Beek is our anchor, and it seems insane that his skills haven’t been put to more intelligent use on the strength of his all-in before the flop performance here.


Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon) is our virgin of the piece and it’s also worth noting that she can still suck a mean cock so don’t go misreading those cute little cheek dimples just yet. Saddled with a promiscuous roommate Lara (Jessica Biel), who is the very epitome of vapid and easily the most one-dimensional character on our roster, Lauren has her work cut out holding onto both her fading innocence and dignity until the end credits.


She has been saving herself for Victor (Kip Pardue) who she is rabidly awaiting to return from a backpacking expedition through Europe, although she has also developed feelings for Sean during the interim and may or may not be responsible for a glut of scented purple love letters he keeps finding in his locker.


The ever fascinating Sossamon is perfectly cast and every bit as pivotal to the bigger picture here. She is the closest we have to a character to truly sympathize with and, while she still makes plenty of ill-informed choices throughout, her heart is undeniably in the right place and Sossamon captures every last emotion brilliantly. Meanwhile, the blossoming romance between her and Bateman is cleverly observed, and certainly doesn’t play out in a traditional manner once the plot begins to thicken. And trust me it does. You ever attempted to digest the crude slop you’re served up in the school canteen? Then you’ll revel in the most pungent of reflux once this particularly acidic dish slides down as it’s more thick-set than a big-boned buffalo and its table manners are every bit as lousy.


Then we have Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), Lauren’s bisexual ex-boyfriend, who has also got designs on our loveable rogue despite it looking unlikely that his feelings will ever be reciprocated. Having only recently come out of the closet, Paul prefers to keep his sexuality on the down low, and this proves troublesome for him as he is also desperate to get noticed by the objection of his affection.


Somerhalder possesses just the right boy next door look for the part and while I understand that his character has been cut down considerably from the source fiction, we’re willing him on to find that modicum of happiness he craves. The Rules of Attraction is character-driven from the very first frame and, with van der Beek, Sossamon, and Somerhalder all on such sparkling form, our investment is an absolute given and never once squandered.


However, for as beautifully realized as the central characters are, there are a number of fringe players on hand to knock the ball out of the park and not a solitary one of them feels superfluous. Clifton Collins Jr. is priceless as Sean’s highly strung drug dealer Rupert, stealing every last scene he is in, Eric Stoltz suitably slimy as Lauren’s unscrupulous college instructor Mr. Lawson, and Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz golden as Paul’s mother Eve and her similarly oblivious friend Mimi.


Meanwhile, Russell Sams is so far off-the-chain it’s positively scary as the dummy spitting Dick, an old fuck buddy of Paul’s who we get the feeling has been suffocating in his shallow lifestyle for years now and positively screams for our undivided attention. Indeed, the scene in a well-to-do restaurant, where Dick cuts loose and makes a big noise is triple platinum all the way and may well have you choking on your shrimp platters.


The highlights here are numerous and, what’s more, Avary adopts an avant-garde approach to telling his story and this ensures that things remain as fresh as a daisy throughout. We are treated to ingeniously devised split screen, the aforementioned time trickery, and a downright gut-busting full throttle travelogue as we find out what Victor has been up to across the Atlantic. That said, while The Rules of Attraction could easily have been a case of style over substance, the performances are so pitch perfect from all involved that this is never in the slightest fear of happening. Throw in a peppering of highly contagious eighties pop anthems and you really don’t stand a chance of not succumbing.


Moreover, he tackles every base from unrequited love, teen suicide, class struggle, moral bankruptcy, heroin addiction, stolen chastity, and the burgeoning need to fit in and doesn’t leave a solitary stone unturned. Despite how hateful their actions may be on occasion, we still find ourselves genuinely caring for this rambunctious bunch of disposable teens, and there are instances within that may well break through your heart’s most icy defences.


This is precisely how satire should be Grueheads. By exploring the countless myths about sex and college life and doing so head-on through the very blackest humor, Avary fashions something of a modern masterpiece and the ideal antithesis to American Pie and all the other harebrained crowd-pleasers pretending they have any kind of inkling as to what really goes down behind dormitory doors. Let’s not twist the narrative, I happen to be rather partial to a slice or two of these afternoon delights, but would much rather hang out at Camden College.


Should you be searching for clear-cut answers or neatly tied-up conclusions, then good luck with that as you’ll find none on this particular campus. Had I mentioned that they’re currently preparing for their annual “Dressed to Get Screwed” party? And if that isn’t sound reasoning for enrollment then I evidently know precious little about The Rules of Attraction.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Read American Psycho Appraisal
Read Pulp Fiction Appraisal
Read Better Off Dead Appraisal
Read Excision Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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