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Sunday, October 13, 2002

The Rules of Attraction
I was nervous about seeing The Rules of Attraction after the Stranger’s film critic, a guy whose taste usually coincides more or less with mine, said in this week’s paper that he couldn’t think of a film he “enjoyed or admired … less.” Still, I was also curious, having seen a disquisition on a pretty innovative split-screen section of the movie on the Sundance Channel’s Anatomy of a Scene. Metacritic’s score for the movie was decently high—even though there were several pans from smart critics. (The Charlotte Observer’s Lawrence Toppman said The Rules of Attraction “ranks with the Great Pyramid of Khufu as a monument to self-indulgence.”)

The first odd thing that I noticed was that of the 25 or so people in the 1:30 showing at the Varsity, only three of us were women. It’s definitely a guy film for the strong-stomached (there are some very harsh sights—not the horror-movie “avert your eyes and isn’t this fun” sort, but rather the Roman shower, physical degradation kind of unsettling visuals). It’s a movie where a scene of a guy taking a shit on-camera is one of the least unsettling images.

It’s set at an elite East Coast college (in Bret Easton Ellis’ novel it’s clearly his alma mater, Bennington) where dorm life seems to consist of sex, serious drug and alcohol abuse, and the phrase “rock and roll.” In other words, the self-obsessed lives of young rich people. She wants him, he wants him, and he wants … For the second time in three days, a movie made me glad I’m not a kid anymore.

The movie used the kind of non-acting that I sometimes like (my very favorite movie, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, almost completely eschewed realistic characterization), but in this case it just felt like the leads, especially James Van Der Beek (the eponymous hero of the teen TV drama Dawson’s Creek in his first nasty ass-wiping-on-screen role), just weren’t capable of anything beyond a sneer or a stare or a shrug. And the adaptation didn’t manage to satisfactorily incorporate all the interior-monologues that make up the bulk of the book.

Still, there were some genuinely innovative elements to the movie’s direction: the long split-screen shot that was on Anatomy of a Scene really was breath-taking—especially when you consider the movie’s modest budget—and some of the temporal tweaking was very smart. The “what I did in Europe this summer” in two minutes section was astonishingly energizing, even though the character involved was truly revolting. There was one scene where I felt the director underlined something that viewers would’ve understood without extra hand-holding (I won’t go into details so as not to spoil the dénouement, but feel free to mail me if you’ve seen the film), but on the whole he respected the audience’s intelligence.

Ay, but once again with the inappropriate laughter! It’s not a laugh-out-loud funny film—such humor as there is comes from observing the characters’ attitudes to life—but there were a couple of scenes where really appalling things happened, and only then did people giggle up a storm. I swear I sometimes want to shout out, “What are you laughing at? This is pain, people!”