Ian Somerhalder in The Rules of AttractionTHE RULES OF ATTRACTION

Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction, based on yet another Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho) novel about soulless, loathsome yuppie scumbags of the '80s, is vile, venal, and sometimes shockingly distasteful. I loved it.

There are going to be - and this is just a rough guess - about a gazillion people out there who won't love it, including viewers who (1) demand a formal, chronological structure, (2) demand a strictly observed storyline, (3) demand that a film's characters be likable, and (4) demand that, if characters are unlikable, they suffer, or at least apologize, for their actions. But here's the group that's going to be most put off by The Rules of Attraction: those who believe that if a movie explores base and repellant behavior, the film itself must be base and repellant. The characters in Avary's adaptation engage in outré sexual acts, unmitigated drug use, occasions of random violence, and petty (and not-so-petty) cruelties galore, yet it's not without purpose; the filmmakers aren't merely getting off on this behavior. Avary keeps us constantly aware of the tragic results that can occur from living your life without remorse or an understanding of consequence; the film's ending is shattering because its characters haven't learned a damned thing. As such, The Rules of Attraction stands as a deeply moral film about immorality, and in case that makes it sound more like a civics lesson than an entertainment, let it also be said that the movie is unpredictable, thrilling, terrifying, moving, and, though many will disagree, blisteringly funny.

It's also a showcase for Roger Avary's technical bravura; this is only his third directorial outing, but his talents appear to be boundless. Though essentially plot-free, Rules follows three students - Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder), and Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon) - traversing through one another's lives at a (fictitious) New England college and involving themselves in all sorts of social/romantic/economic nightmares along the way. Ellis' novel is about the corruption of youth, mid-'80s-style, and the movie version - particularly its soundtrack - is seemingly set in that period as well, but our first hint that Avary is up to something bigger comes early on, when we realize this Reagan-era setting is being invaded by present-day clothes, cars, and dialogue. (Very early on there's a reference to Avary's Pulp Fiction co-writer Quentin Tarantino; except for his immediate family, no one in the '80s knew who Tarantino was.) Far from exemplifying lazy filmmaking, Avary is showing us that heartlessness and self-centeredness aren't confined to a single decade. By keeping the film from being a mere time-capsule piece - "Look how awful the '80s were!" - he manages to explore a deeper theme; youthful affectlessness often leads to horrific events, and since the '80s, things are only getting worse. Even the structure of Rules - we leapfrog back and forth in time, and sometimes the literal movement of the film occurs backwards for minutes on end - underlines this theme; we might think we're moving forward, but humanistically, we're inching ever backwards.

Yet Avary isn't merely being moralistic; he's eager to give the audience a good time (whether it's your kind of good time is another matter entirely). There are at least a half-dozen scenes where his prowess makes you want to applaud, among them: Sean and Lauren's hallway encounter, a miracle of editing and split-screen effects; an hysterical, appropriately homoerotic rendition of George Michael's "Faith"; a wallflower's tragic suicide, shot, in one continuous take, so we witness every ounce of life draining from her face; and a three-minute flash-tour of Europe that is like a hedonist's wet dream. Avary also performs wonders with his stellar cast, with special mention going to Van Der Beek (Sean is the younger brother of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman character from American Psycho, and Van Der Beek does a raw, Satanic approximation of Bale), Clifton Collins Jr. as a frighteningly hopped-up drug dealer, and Russell Sams, a one-scene sensation as a gay friend of Paul who lives for shocking his mother (a perfectly-cast Swoosie Kurtz) in public. The Rules of Attraction is thematically rich, marvelously written and directed, terrifically acted, structurally surprising, and altogether amazing. Just watch as uncomprehending critics everywhere piss all over it.


Renee Zellweger and Michelle Pfeiffer in White OleanderWHITE OLEANDER

A browbeating-mother/long-suffering-daughter relationship. Wisdom acquired through abandonment, imprisonment, and death. An Oprah-endorsed book. White Oleander should have made me run from the theatre screaming, but astonishingly, I didn't hate it. It's true that this film version of Janet Fitch's novel, about a teenage girl's life within the foster-care system, feels like it severely truncates its source material; the timeline is bewildering, the characters' motives are unclear, and we're denied scenes of basic information that would help us understand the leading character's plight - we're occasionally told how well she's doing in school, but we never actually see her there. (Shouldn't the constant change of schools have some effect on her?) Peter Kosminsky's staging is dull, yet - and here's White Oleander's saving grace - he seems gifted with actors. In the leading role, Alison Lohman, who looks uncannily like a young Jessica Lange, shows true camera instinct, and she's supported by Robin Wright Penn and Renee Zellweger, who play this close to totally crazy, and Amy Aquino and Cole Hauser, who are blessedly sane. Best of the lot is Michelle Pfeiffer as a mother who could give Medea the chills; she has the icy focus and taunting energy needed to raise White Oleander - barely - above the level of your average Limetime weepie.


Andy Davoli, Seth Green, Barry Pepper, and Vin Diesel in Knockaround GuysKNOCKAROUND GUYS

I recall seeing previews for the mini-mobster drama Knockaround Guys in the summer of 2001, so considering how long the film has stayed on the New Line Cinema shelf - which usually indicates that the movie in question is a real dog - the results aren't heinous at all. The plot, which concerns a group of gangsters' sons retrieving a bag of dough from rural Montana, is comically intriguing (there's a hint of Fargo-esque subversion), and the impressive cast features Barry Pepper, John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper (looking more and more like latter-day Marlon Brando), Tom Noonan, Seth Green, and everyone's favorite tattooed knucklehead, Vin Diesel. After a promising opening half, though, the picture runs out of steam. Events degenerate into a series of witless shoot-outs, with bum tough-guy dialogue to match, yet what hurts the film the most are the mawkish, faux-sentimental scenes of the youths whining about how they never really earned the respect of their fathers; it's as if the cast of The Sopranos performed a summer-stock rendition of Stand by Me. Writer-directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien shouldn't be embarrassed by their creation, but Knockaround Guys feels like stale goods, and would have even if its release hadn't been so protracted.

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