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Rules of Attraction
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
At its dark heart, The Rules of Attraction is about unrequited love. It's also about cynicism and disillusionment and narcissism. It's also about drinking and drugging and partying. The striking way all those themes and ideas and actions fit together in Roger Avary's strangely compelling adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's novel is something you appreciate after you view the film, perhaps after you view it twice. On my second and third viewing, Rules of Attraction matured from a mildly diverting angst-ridden party movie to a film about real emotion that I could savor.
James Van Der Beek stars as Sean Bateman (brother of Patrick, from Ellis's American Psycho), a deeply self-absorbed student at New England's Camden College who deals drugs, swills Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, and makes a game of sleeping with as many women as possible. But he's been receiving heartfelt anonymous love letters in his P.O. box, and at odds with his own personality, he finds himself attracted to Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), whom he's convinced is the author of the perfumed notes. But Lauren is smitten with her globetrotting, womanizing "boyfriend" Victor (Kip Pardue), who couldn't care less about Lauren and spends most of the movie on a hilarious European vacation. (To avoid losing her virginity to anyone but Victor, Lauren studies a volume of graphic photographs portraying the results of sexually transmitted diseases.) Rounding out the central threesome is bisexual Paul (Ian Somerhalder), former boyfriend of Lauren but now firmly on the gay side of the equation as he relentlessly and recklessly pursues the affections of Sean. Adding still more to this chaos of unrequited love is the deeply affecting backstory of who's really sending those love letters.
The Rules of Attraction has all kinds of visual tricks and storytelling devices up its sleeve—so many that they might distract you from the power of the story and characters. (They did on my first viewing.) You might think the film is all gimmicks, but actually the tricks are in service of the plot. From the start, you're bombarded with backward-running film, split-screen shots, freeze frames, jarring edits, and shifting points of view. It's a lot to digest, but more and more, I find the film's stylistic onslaught a perfect echo of the characters' social frenzies, their drug-addled perceptions, their emotional turmoils. The result is a frenetic visual energy that is at once entertaining to watch and indicative of the characters' inner lives.
I've never read the source novel, but I've read other Ellis fiction, including American Psycho. Avary (director of Killing Zoe, cowriter of Pulp Fiction), working from his own screenplay, seems to "get" the sense of painful alienation and nihilistic angst—bordering on sociopathy—that describes Ellis's characters. Most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable and yet they have an undeniable humanity, as if it's just the fate of a black, cynical universe that has thrust them into their lives of unquiet desperation. Their humor is edgy and cold. Their human relationships are surface-focused. But in the midst of their blurry existences, they seem to be yearning past their flaws and circumstances. By the end of Rules of Attraction, which is bleak and tragic, you nevertheless feel hope for these characters' futures.
The performances are surprisingly fine, particularly the two main leads. Van Der Beek is by turns vicious and uncaring, successfully avoiding the saccharine type-casting of his Dawson's Creek past. Sossamon portrays Lauren as earthy and messed up in all the right ways. There are also entertaining cameos by Eric Stoltz (as a pot-smoking professor who ain't above a little fleshy fun for the sake of a grade) and Fred Savage (as a blitzed-out film student enjoying his high while a lit cigarette dangles from his navel). All of these performances are in service of a film that pays uncommon attention to the plights of its zoned-out characters' emotional landscapes.
Note: There were some rumors that this DVD might contain Avary's original unrated cut. Unfortunately, this disc contains only the theatrical version, so let's hope for an unrated cut on disc at a later date.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Lion's Gate presents The Rules of Attraction in an impressive anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. This looks crisper and richer than when I saw it in the theater. Still, although detail is impressive and mostly reaches into backgrounds, there is a general softness, belying the film's low-budget roots. The print is very clean, except for the odd shot here and there that appears to have been dropped on a dirty floor. Blacks are deep, and colors are vivid. I noticed no edge haloes or compression artifacts.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD offers only a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround soundtrack, also apparently a product of the budget. That being said, it's a fairly dynamic track, especially across the front. Dialog and music are full-bodied. I wouldn't call this an aggressive surround mix, obviously, but ambient sound effects and music make their way to the rear for an enveloping experience.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The main attraction of this DVD, found under the Audio section, is its plethora of Audio Commentaries. I can't remember any other DVD featuring so many supplemental audio tracks. The first one is a feature-length affair from Carrot Top, who has never seen the movie. Apparently, Avary loved this idea, having laughed hysterically to the comedian's comments over Chairman of the Board. The track he provides for Rules of Attraction is a real oddity. Listening to it alone, with all your critical facilities in place, you'll find it slow moving and misogynistic and politically incorrect to the extreme. I can imagine many people (e.g., women) reacting with disgust. However, if you happen to be male and, say, gather a group of similarly gendered persons about you for a late-night listen, preferably while slightly inebriated, the track becomes pure hilarity. Yes, Carrot Top comes across as a total ass, but he also throws out some dirty jokes that will leave you out of breath laughing.
Next up are five Revolving Door Audio Commentaries. I don't think I've heard the "revolving door" term before, at least as applied to audio tracks, but I've certainly seen this concept done before. Essentially, it means that several people are involved with each track, recorded separately, and edited in at appropriate screen-specific moments. The result is audio tracks that are almost constantly engaging, with only minor dead spots.
The first of these features Production Designer Sharon Seymour, Actors Ian Somerhalder and Russell Sams, and Ron Jeremy (yes, the porn star). Seymour talks at length about how she got the job, and about replicating the East Coast setting in California. Somerhalder talks about on-set anecdotes, and how Avary seems to have used all the takes that he assumed were throwaway "joker" takes. He also goes to great lengths to dispel any notion that he might actually be gay. He and Sams talk about their restaurant scene, one of the funniest in the film, together. Ron Jeremy comes in at about the hour mark and is quite talkative and funny, and lets us know that most of the naked girls at the Dress to Get Screwed Party are porn stars.
The second features Actors Shannyn Sossamon, Theresa Wayman, Kip Pardue, Roger Avary (briefly), and Clifton Collins Jr.. After listening to Sossamon on this track, I like her all the more. She came across as intelligent, easygoing, and quite likable. Wayman talks over her scenes as the cafeteria girl, and she has a sweet naiveté and earnestness about acting in her first big feature. Pardue talks with Roger Avary over one of the most entertaining sequences of the film, the flash-edited European vacation. Finally, Collins talks over his scenes as the drug dealer, noting the influence of Samuel L. Jackson.
The third features Executive Producer Jeremiah Samuels, Composer Andy Milburn, and Actors Thomas Ian Nicholas and Joel Michaely. On this commentary, as you can guess, things start getting more technical. Samuels talks about early conversations with Avary about how they would film the story, as well as some fairly interesting anecdotes, colored by worries of litigation and safety. Nicholas (American Pie) is a fun speaker, full of behind-the-scenes stories. Michaely also provides an entertaining listen, but he talks about cut scenes that are nowhere to be found on the DVD, unfortunately. There are long periods of silences on this track.
The fourth features Director of Photography Robert Brinkmann and Second Unit Director Harry Ralston. The technical aspects continue. Brinkmann, who dominates the track, is probably the driest speaker, but he does have some interesting background to share. Ralston is more dynamic, sharing his fairly wild adventures on the set.
The fifth features Editor Sharon Rutter and Actor Eric Szmanda. This one starts out with Szmanda, who plays a bit part at the beginning of the film. He talks about his part, then hands the reins over to Rutter, who has a great, sexy voice. Her contribution avoids being overly technical, and she spends a lot of time talking about the film's meaning and its actors. She does mention something that almost every other commentator has mentioned before—that a key scene was filmed on September 11, 2001.
Despite all these voices, I was disappointed that we didn't get to hear more from the film's director and primary male star. Avary is obviously a proponent of the audio commentary, so why didn't he contribute his thoughts?
The next special feature is the 26-minute Sundance Channel Presents: Anatomy of a Scene. The focus is on the split-screen meeting of Sean and Lauren, but it really talks about the film as a whole. Here, we get recollections from Avary and Van Der Beek, as well as Shannyn Sossamon, producer Greg Shapiro, digital effects supervisor Reid Paul, editor Sharon Rutter, production designer Sharon Seymour, cinematographer Robert Brinkmann (who acknowledges the influence of Douglas Sirk), and even Bret Easton Ellis. I liked Avary's quote that he likes to "allow the cosmic accidents to happen." He was referring to an on-set change in the way Sean confronts Lauren in the key scene. It's a nicely filmed featurette, typical of the Anatomy of a Scene series.
Finally, the disc offers a selection of trailers: the Theatrical Trailer in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (offering good color and detail); the Promo Trailer (Unrated) in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen (wordless images of thrusting set to music); and Promo Trailer (R-Rated) in full frame (in a style that's very similar to the theatrical trailer). Then an 11-second Book Spot about Ellis's work, and a 27-second Soundtrack Spot (i.e., a shameless plug).
There's also an Easter Egg trailer for a film called The Last Man, by Harry Ralston (the second-unit director of Rules).
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Rules of Attraction is ideally suited to DVD because it's a film that really requires at least a couple viewings to appreciate it. I recommend the disc not only because it holds an underrated film but also because the supplements are above average and unique.