James van der Beek and Shannon Sossamon in The Rules Of Attraction.
The Rules of Attraction (2002; dir. Roger Avary
)—Last weekend I was on my way to a donut shop near the University of Minnesota when I noticed a group of well-dressed young women lined up on the sidewalk in front of a large, three-story house. They were listening attentively and obediently to the slightly older, slightly better-dressed young woman addressing them from her perch on the nice front lawn only she was allowed to stand on. It was impressive; everyone seemed to be taking this bit of absurdist undergraduate street theater completely seriously. But once I remembered it was pledge week at the U, it quickly became sort of tragic.
Few movies about college life dare to acknowledge the unspoken sadness and longing to belong that gnaws away at the insides of aspiring fraternity brothers and sorority sisters like the ones I saw on Saturday. The Rules of Attraction
, Roger Avary’s audacious adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ second novel, is a major exception—maybe the only major exception. Set at a small, East coast liberal-arts college, Avary’s time-jumping network of interlocking romances is riddled with crossed wires, misread signals and dropped connections. In spite of a handful of darkly funny, taboo-busting scenes that might align it with the Animal Houses
and Old Schools
of the world, it is a work heavy with pain and heartbreak.
The Rules of Attraction
also offers further evidence that Ellis was and is a screenwriter who happens to write novels. On the page, his characters’ opacity and general vacancy grates and vexes. But when those same characters appear on screen, they are reborn as mysterious, sexy, and compelling—especially when they’re embodied in such youthful objects d’art as Jessica Biel, Ian Somerhalder, Kip Pardue, and Shannyn Sossamon.
Classically Romantic yet starkly modernist, slick-looking yet unafraid of atmospheric smoke and grime, cold-hearted yet deeply sensitive to the smallest emotional slights, The Rules of Attraction
is of the most underrated films of the 2000s. It’s so good it will probably make you wonder about the untapped acting potential of James van der Beek. And it ought to make you wonder about Avary, the Pulp Fiction
co-writer who hasn’t released another movie since.