Substance Abuse

'The Rules of Attraction' is a mostly empty but still stylish tale of college debauchery.

The Rules of Attraction, the new film based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel about collegiate debauchery, is filled with, as the MPAA ratings board puts it, "strong sexual content, drug use, language and violent images." But what's most shocking about the movie is the way it puts heretofore squeaky-clean young TV actors in the most tawdry of situations.

See the cuddly James Van Der Beek, of Dawson's Creek fame, grunting in animalistic glee as he shamelessly seduces college co-eds! See the lovely Jessica Biel, who plays a preacher's daughter on 7th Heaven, stumble drunkenly in her underwear down a dorm hall and take on the entire football team! See Fred Savage--Kevin from The Wonder Years for goodness' sake!--shoot heroin between his toes!

Written and directed by Roger Avary, who also made the underrated but way-violent Killing Zoe and co-wrote Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction is a moralistic tale of empty pleasure-seeking on a New England college campus at which every weekend is an excuse for a Bacchanal that includes degrading acts participants won't want to remember in the morning.

But it is also about how crime, violence and the destruction of the soul infiltrate the usual college shenanigans, giving the world of innocuous sex comedies such as American Pie and Road Trip a darker undercurrent fueled by speed, pot, cocaine, alcohol, Ecstasy and heroin.

Avary's challenge was to translate Ellis' stream-of-conscious novel, in which multiple narrators relate their debasing adventures, to the screen. So he uses parallel narratives, split screens and sped-up reverse-action footage to zip in and out of the lives of his three or four main characters.

This storytelling technique is not an intriguing non-linear puzzle plot, such as Pulp Fiction or Memento, but a thoughtful attempt at depicting the dizzying confusion of a substance-addled existence at university. These characters have a hard time discerning which events in their lives came before or after the others, and so too do the viewers.

The result for the characters is a sort of blank existential ennui. And the film dares us to care for them. As one character says in an opening voice-over, "It's a story that might bore you but you don't have to listen."

Let's see if we can encapsulate the main conflicts:

Van Der Beek is Sean Bateman, a part-time cocaine dealer and full-time liar and girl chaser who becomes obsessed with a secret admirer who leaves love notes in his mailbox. Trivia buffs might be interested to note that Sean is the younger brother of Patrick Bateman, the title character in Ellis' novel American Psycho and the movie based on it.

Sean's standard response to about anything is "rock 'n' roll," which is a vaguely ironic remark of enthusiasm or approval. Disapproval is met with "whatever." But sometimes the lines between the meanings behind the two phrases are blurred.

Shannyn Sossamon is Lauren, who sacrifices herself to most any guy because she carries a torch for the superficial and absent Victor (Kip Pardue), who is taking a semester off to travel Europe. Biel is Lauren's lush of a roommate, Lara, whose loyalty to her friends goes only as far as the next guy's bedroom.

Ian Somerhalder, who looks like he could be Rob Lowe's little brother, plays Paul, who used to date Lauren, until he realized he's gay. Now he nurses an unrequited crush for Sean. But he'll sleep with other guys to dull the pain if he gets the chance. He's the sort of guy who considers an overdosing friend an obstacle to finding the right shirt for his evening's date.

Into this mix get tossed a number of satellite characters, such as Eric Stoltz's stoner professor, who doesn't have intercourse with his female students for fear of losing his wife and tenure, but he will let them perform oral sex on him in his office. Clifton Collins Jr. (who played the hit man who gets tortured by the federales in Traffic) is a crazed redneck drug dealer who wishes he were black and is constantly threatening bodily harm on the double-crossing Sean.

And then there's Savage as rich-kid junkie and wannabe jazz musician Marc. He appears in only one scene, when he gets high in his underwear while Sean asks for some money he's owed. But those few minutes on screen help explode any stereotyped notions we have had of the actor. It's a daring role and one of the best scenes in the film.

Another fine sequence takes place when Paul is summoned to New York City for dinner with his mother, her girlfriend and her own college-age son, Richard ("Call me Dick!"), played by newcomer Russell Sams. While the mothers (Faye Dunaway, Swoosie Kurtz) pop pills and down cocktails, Dick unleashes a hilarious, infantile tirade, puffing on his cigarette like a bitchy queen. Sams is impossible to forget.

The Rules of Attraction also turns on a mystery of sorts--who really is sending Sean those purple love notes dosed with that annoying confetti? Flaunting convention, the movie answers the question, tragically, about halfway through.

It's more telling that, thematically and in terms of plot, The Rules of Attraction starts nowhere and ends nowhere. The end turns out to be the beginning and vice versa. The resulting film is empty but it has a reckless energy--the proverbial case of style over substance. Just like the lives of its characters. At least Avary keeps things interesting along the way.