Judge Gordon Sullivan's chapter-length monologues were turned into scratch paper.
"It's a story that might bore you, but you don't have to listen, because I always knew it was going to be like that."—Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon)
For all the furor over bad behavior, supposed misogyny, and youthful excess, it's easy to forget one important fact about Bret Easton Ellis: he's an amazing writer. Although famed for his tales of almost-interchangeable bored youth, complete with name drops about their up-market accessories and fashion, Ellis is a master of the first person narrative, and all his characters come off as distinct human beings, despite their shallow desires and vapid habits. When his first novel, Less Than Zero hit big, Ellis took that book's first person narration to the next step and wrote The Rules of Attraction, with each chapter being narrated from a different character's point of view. Most chapters focus on the POV of the three main characters, but others get a chance in the spotlight as well, including a short chapter entirely in French from an exchange student's perspective (if memory serves). When it came time to develop the novel into a film (after, I imagine, the success of American Psycho), Roger Avery was a logical choice. As half the team that brought us the multi-perspective Pulp Fiction, Avery was primed to turn Ellis' novel into a film. He uses every trick in the cinematic book to turn Ellis' chapter-length monologues into a compelling narrative, and The Rules of Attraction (Blu-ray) succeeds better than it has any right to.
Facts of the Case
The Rules of Attraction takes place at the fictional Camden College, where three main characters find themselves in a bit of a love triangle culminating in an End of the World party. The characters are…
• Lauren, an unassuming virgin, who is saving herself for an ex-boyfriend when she begins to have feelings for Sean.
• Paul (Ian Somerhalder, Lost), Lauren's ex-boyfriend (though not the one she's saving herself for), who finds himself developing feels for Sean, despite Sean's ambivalence and desire for Lauren.
The film opens at the End of the World party, shows us that night, and then rewinds to show us how the characters became entangled, which includes a number of strange encounters, anonymous love letters, and lots of sex and drugs.
The Rules of Attraction, like its source novel, is difficult to judge. Its whole point is to portray the disaffection and sexual ambivalence of a particular group of people. The film tries to show the emptiness of random couplings, the dead end of constant recreational drug use, and just how little these people care about any of it. To do so, the film largely mimics the states of the characters: we're confused when they're confused, we're not affected by what doesn't affect them. That makes The Rules of Attraction a successful cinematic achievement, but it also makes it a difficult film to sit through. The film is both helped and hurt by its streak of black humor. This is not a serious and gritty portrayal that attempts to get to the bottom of the problems of spoiled rich kids. No, this is a film that casts a satirical eye on a group of privileged kids and shows that the emptiness of their lives might not be so far off from the emptiness of yours and mine. It's not a pretty mirror to look into.
The film, though, is largely saved from most critiques by the group of actors Avery assembled to bring the story to life. James van der Beek is a revelation as the amoral sociopath Sean Bateman. I'm amazed that his career didn't go into immediate overdrive at this film. This was also an early film for Shannyn Sossamon, and her portrayal of Lauren matches van der Beek's for intensity, even if her role is a little less compelling. Ian Somerhalder has the hardest job in the film as the affectless and closed-off Paul, but he manages to be both riveting and off-putting at the same time. Other, smaller roles go to people like Jessica Biel, Kip Pardue, and Clifton Collins Jr. , and in these smaller roles the actors excel.
The Rules of Attraction didn't set box office records, but back in the earlier days of DVD, it got a pretty solid release, with six commentaries and a featurette plus some promotional material. That disc has largely been ported over for this Blu-ray release. The transfer definitely ups the ante from the DVD, offering more fine object detail and colors that "pop" just a little bit more on this AVC-encoded transfer. Grain can be a bit overwhelming, though, and darker scenes aren't as inky as I'd like, but for a low-budget black comedy, the film looks good. The audio track also gets an upgrade to a lossless DTS-HD track that does a great job representing the film's strong sound design. There are numerous moments where multiple voices overlap, and the central dialogue comes through clearly while distributing atmosphere to the surrounds. The six commentaries have been ported over from the last release. One is by Carrot Top (yes, that Carrot Top). He's not really familiar with the movie, and instead just riffs about it and tells dirty jokes. It's fitfully amusing, but not great. The other five are "revolving door" commentaries. This means that a total of sixteen people were recorded for these five tracks, from the actors to the producers and production designers. This means five commentaries of almost no dead time that cover everything from the experience of being on set to how various shots where achieved. It's a lot of material, but worth going through for fans of the film. The film's trailers and promos are also included from the previous disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Missing from the Blu-ray is the "Anatomy of a Scene" featurette from the DVD that examined one of the split-screen moments in the film. It was a nice feature on the DVD, and served as a good visual counterpoint to the aural info contained in the commentaries. Speaking of commentaries, it's a shame that Roger Avery didn't sit down for one. This was obviously a passion project, but he's essentially absent from the special features now.
The Rules of Attraction itself is also a black comedy about twentysomethings behaving badly. There's no real moral lesson or guiding light offered by the film, so those who are disturbed by nudity, casual sex, drug use, and bisexuality should give this film a wide berth.
Bret Easton Ellis claims The Rules of Attraction is the closest anyone has come to faithfully translating one of his novels to the big screen, and considering the attention to character detail of the resulting film, it's not hard to agree with him. Although not a perfect film nor always a fun one to watch, The Rules of Attraction has enough tricks up its sleeve to warrant a rental by fans of the actors or Ellis' work. Those who loved the previous DVD will probably only want to pick up this Blu-ray on deep discount, as the audiovisual upgrade isn't totally stunning and the featurette is missing.
Despite some hiccups, The Rules of Attraction is not guilty.
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