[Screen It]

(2002) (James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon) (R)

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Drama: The lives of various narcissistic college students intersect in unexpected ways during the 1980s.
Sean Bateman (JAMES VAN DER BEEK), Paul Denton (IAN SOMERHALDER) and Lauren Hynde (SHANNYN SOSSAMON) are students at a 1980s era college. Lauren once dated Paul, but he's now gay, and she wishes she could lose her virginity to Victor (KIP PARDUE), but he's traveling abroad in Europe.

Thus, she's looking for a replacement and tells her roommate, Lara (JESSICA BIEL), that her choice is Sean. Lara tells her that Sean is a drug dealer who distributes drugs for Rupert (CLIFTON COLLINS, JR.) to many of the students including Lauren, Lara, Marc (FRED SAVAGE) and Mitchell (THOMAS IAN NICHOLAS). Nevertheless, Lauren doesn't seem to care.

Nor does she know that Paul is also interested in Sean, although that's based on him misreading signals from Sean who has no interest in him. Instead, he's intrigued by various anonymous love letters that he eventually concludes are from Lauren who's in the same class taught by Lance Lawson (ERIC STOLTZ)

As time in the film jumps around and reverses on itself, we watch as the three narcissistic students deal with their triangular relationship as well as college life and everything it presents to them.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
It's been twenty some years since I headed off for college. While I'm sure many things have changed in the intervening time, I'm positive that others have remained the same and probably will continue to do so for generations to come.

Namely, that is that college serves as something of a United Nations for the teen and early twenty-something set. Not only do most universities attract an eclectic mix of races, nationalities, religious beliefs and the like, but they also host varying levels of emotional development and maturation that coexist, mingle and clash.

Then there's the whole element of experimentation. Whether it's sex, booze, drugs or new ideologies and beliefs, there's probably no time in one's life where such trials take place and beliefs and behavior so altered. All of that comes into play in "The Rules of Attraction."

Based on Bret Easton Ellis's novel, the film follows the overlapping stories of various college students the like that parents hope their kids will never become. Working from his adaptation of Ellis' novel, writer/director Roger Avary ("Killing Zoe" and co-writer of "Pulp Fiction") does a little experimenting of his own in terms of both how the story unfolds as well as certain visual tricks and effects.

In fact, all of that ultimately ends up being far more interesting than the story and characters. While it's refreshing if not particularly pleasant to see a look at college that's the antithesis of "Animal House" and "American Pie," the direction certainly overshadows most everything else.

While nonlinear storytelling isn't anything new (think of "Pulp Fiction" and others that hop through time), Avary takes it to an entirely new level. He does so by actually reversing the film (resulting in characters and their voices going in the wrong direction) back to a different angle of what we've just seen, and then moving forward again in a new direction and following another subplot. This occurs several times and, despite its simplicity, is mesmerizing to watch.

The same holds true for a sequence that simultaneously unfolds in split screen mode where we follow two characters until they eventually meet at the same point. Other visual effects are present throughout the film that also contains a decent if eclectic soundtrack of mostly '80s tunes (which is apparently when the story is set, like the novel).

Yet, in the end, those various effects and particular scenes are better and far more memorable than the movie as a whole. That's not only due to various scenes being out there just to be wild or shocking and others simply not working, but also because the story, when boiled down to its basics, isn't terribly intriguing or engaging.

In the novel, one had a number of unreliable narrators who led readers through the story and their particular take or version of the truth. While the multiple narratives are also present here (although more so at the beginning), the unreliable bit has pretty much been tossed out. Sure, there are some fantasy segments representing those disparate points of view, but the basic story of college lust, romance and decadence doesn't have as much depth or resonance as it could.

Beyond none of the characters getting away scot-free with their actions and beliefs - and the related repercussions thereof - there's not much to what's offered here (which may explain all of the filmmaking trickery and effects that may be present as filler or to divert one's attention from that fact).

The performances range from interesting to good with James Van Der Beek ("Texas Rangers," "Varsity Blues"), Ian Somerhalder ("Life as a House") and Shannyn Sossamon ("40 Days and 40 Nights," "A Knight's Tale") managing to be both. Playing the opposite of his Dawson's Creek TV persona and seemingly channeling Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (the leering downward head position with eyes slightly rolled back), Van Der Beek certainly creates a mesmerizing is not particularly likable character.

Sossamon nails the college girl persona who's interested in losing her virginity to the guy of her choice but gets more than she bargained for, while Somerhalder is good playing her former boyfriend who's now bisexual. All are compelling in their parts, partly because we have no idea how things will play out for and between them.

Supporting performances from the likes of Jessica Biel ("Summer's Catch," "Ulee's Gold"), Kip Pardue ("Driven," "Remember the Titans"), Eric Stoltz ("The House of Mirth," "Pulp Fiction") and Clifton Collins, Jr. ("The Last Castle," "Traffic") work for what's asked of the characters, while Fred Savage ("Austin Powers in Goldmember," TV's "The Wonder Years"), Faye Dunaway ("The Yards," "The Thomas Crown Affair") and Swoosie Kurtz ("Bubble Boy," "Liar Liar") only briefly appear in the picture.

That's part of the film's problem. Certain scenes simply don't do anything other than show what looks like an obvious effort to emulate the mood and tone of the similar but more effective and congruous ones in "Pulp Fiction."

Wildly uneven, but filled with moments of brilliance as well as memorable, disturbing and thought-provoking scenes, the film initially had me ambivalent about it. I then warmed up to it a bit over the next several days, but have since drifted back to my original feeling that it's too much style over substance. Viewer reaction will certainly vary, and due to the film's level of content, it's clearly not for all audiences. "The Rules of Attraction" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 20, 2002 / Posted October 11, 2002

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