Published October 14, 2002
Among the eponymous Rules of Attraction in Roger Avary’s film of the novel by Bret Easton Ellis is an ironically intended Murphy’s Law of Attraction, namely that those we desire don’t desire us, and vice versa. Perhaps this is so, but it must be admitted that it is much more likely to appear so from the point of view of the self-pitying adolescent for whom, I take it, this film is primarily intended. Thus, too, it seeks to convey the impression of depth from the strategic use of such adolescent pseudo-profundities as, in answer to the frantic question, “Are you crazy?” the gnomic reply: “Define crazy.”
Another such, offered up more than once to those who express an interest in getting to know someone, is “No one ever really knows anyone else.” It would be nice to think that there were a witty play here on what our parents and grandparents, brought up on the King James Version of the Bible, used euphemistically to call “the biblical sense” of the verb “to know,” since it is only in that sense of the word that the film seems really to be interested. But neither Mr Avary nor Mr Easton Ellis strikes one as a King James Version sort of guy.
So what we are left with is a remarkably superficial knowledge of the collegiate version of La Ronde that occupies center-stage. Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) wants Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon), a virgin who has hitherto remained chaste by looking at the photos in a medical textbook of venereal disease as a way of putting herself off sex before she goes to parties. But Lauren is beginning to be less successful at suppressing her passionate nature, and she wants Victor Johnson (Kip Pardue) who — but then the less said about Victor the better. Victor is a user who wants no one really but pretty much everyone biblically.
When we first meet him at Camden College’s “End of the World Party” (more adolescent portentousness), Victor is enthusiastically recounting the principle on which he operated during a recent European tour. If you stand on a street corner anywhere in Europe, he says, and ask every fanciable woman who comes along if she will sleep with you, one in twenty will say yes. Pretty good odds, if you happen to be Victor. Victor is also wanted, though mainly, it seems, platonically, by Mitchell Allen (Thomas Ian Nicholas), who is treated abominably by him. Mitch, at least, is rich, and buys the affections of his slutty girlfriend, Candice (Clare Kramer), by keeping her supplied with cocaine.
But Victor, the dead end kid, here departeth from this story. Instead, we go back the other way to Sean who, his own feelings being unrequited, is equally callous to those who want him, namely Lauren’s ex-, Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), and a (female) cafeteria worker who sends him anonymous love-letters on purple paper that Sean persuades himself must come from Lauren. He wishes. Paul, in his turn, is wanted by Richard ‘Dick’ Jared (Russell Sams), but apparently nobody wants the cafeteria worker — which is odd, because she strikes me as being the prettiest of the picture’s many pretty, mixed-up girls. The unhappy consequence for her suggests that the first rule of attraction is to attract someone. Even Dick, a tremendous jerk, is attractive to his mother (Swoosie Kurtz) — and so, naturally, treats her appallingly.
Sean, who is working his way through college as a drug dealer, is also wanted, though not at all in a good way, by his supplier, the dangerously unstable Rupert (Clifton Collins Jr.), and by Kelly (Kate Bosworth) and Lara (Jessica Biel), the roommate of Lauren — she’s the one he wants remember? He takes sexual advantage of Kelly and Lara and is beaten up by Rupert. Lauren, on the other hand, wants (in addition to Victor) Professor Lance Lawson (Eric Stoltz), though mainly as a means of losing her virginity. The Prof., worried about losing something else (namely tenure) and sharing Bill Clinton’s views of what does and doesn’t constitute sex, offers her — well, something less than she asks for.
Later — though in the movie it comes at the beginning, since it has one of those fractured time sequences that are meant to make it look arty — Lauren succeeds in getting so drunk that she sheds the hated maidenhead as the unconscious star of an amateur porn film whose “money shot” consists not of semen but of vomit. If that strikes you as being either amusing or significant perhaps you will find other things to like in this film, but what I don’t think you will find is anything of any interest to a grown-up on the subject of sexual attraction. The hint of a dawning consciousness of the moral and spiritual emptiness of a life of drugs, liquor and sexual promiscuity comes too late to carry much conviction.