In 1985, Brett Easton Ellis’ first book “Less than Zero”, introduced a new voice to the “party at the end of civilization” genre – those texts dealing with a corrupted society’s last orgy before collapse (for example, works from 1930’s Berlin and the Fall of Rome). The book, heavily influenced by Joan Didion, was a cocaine powered paean to ‘80‘s excess, materialism and greed. The characters were rich and bored, drowning in the very vices they used to escape the everyday.
His second book, “Rules of Attraction” (1988), picks up the party at fictional Camden College (rumored to be based on Ellis’ alma mater, Bennington College) where the young, wealthy and white escape reality – or not—on a lifeboat of sex, alcohol and drugs. The story, adapted to the screen by director Roger Avary, who co-wrote Pulp Fiction, alternates perspectives and time lines while focusing on several, colorfully named parties (e.g. “End of the World Party”) on Camden’s campus.
The “attraction” of the title is a bit of a misnomer. If love has many forms, one of which does not require any great knowledge of a person, something beyond attraction and more like obsession, then this movie is about love. Instead of a love triangle, Rules of Attraction jumps perspectives on a love line: bi and beautiful Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder) loves self-described “emotional vampire” and part-time drug dealer Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), who in turn loves the doe-eyed and virginal Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon) who loves self-absorbed Victor (Kip Pardue). To stir up the party, it is Lara (Jessica Biel), Lauren’s roommate, who Sean sleeps with as a proxy, while Paul has a nostalgic fling with long-time friend Richard “Dick” Jared (a scene- stealing, Russell Sams). Notable cameos include Eric Stoltz (as student seducer, Professor Lance Lawson); Faye Dunaway as Paul’s tipsy mother; and a cocaine-dusted Clifton Collins, Jr. as unpredictable drug dealer Rupert.
If this strange face of love can be compared to the vast quantities of narcotics casually consumed by the students, then it is the strongest drug of all. While the students can shrug off the effects of getting beaten with a baseball bat, casual sex with a sports team, cocaine/heroin and whiskey drunk as if it really was the water of life, they cannot escape the heartache when each of their budding hopes of love are crushed. Most poignant is the author of Sean’s anonymous love letters who takes her own life when she sees his indiscriminate philandering.
Ellis’ books have all dealt with similar 1980’s themes from different perspectives and have woven in references to characters from his other works. For example, “Rules of Attraction” protagonist, Sean Bateman, is younger brother to “American Psycho”, Patrick Bateman. Roger Avary has done a good job at adapting this multi-perspective narrative into a slick, visually dynamic movie. His backward-forward filming and present- past-present timing gradually reveal the story but he cannot put content into what is, in the end, an empty tale.
Although the movie is set in the present day, the strong influence of the book and Avary’s decision to weave in references to Ellis’ other books keeps a ‘80’s zeitgeist. The book “Rules of Attraction” already felt dated upon its release and the movie feels all the more so – the times having changed so dramatically over the years: the end of the Cold War; the flannel-clad nihilism descending from the Seattle scene; the disappearance of the rich, white boy as the movie bad guy; the return of heroin. But perhaps, most importantly, the world did not end.
Parents should know that this movie contains many elements that they would not want their children to see. The first scene alone of a horribly demeaning date-rape is followed by a non-stop montage designed to shock the most jaded of college party kids, let alone their parents. Sex is pervasive, casual and often described in excruciating detail. Drugs are ubiquitous and feature no downsides beyond the occasional bloody nose or fight with a dealer. Alcohol is more prevalent than soda. The bathtub suicide of one of the minor characters is so devoid of emotion that the laying out of the razor blade is as casual as removing one’s rings.
Families who see this movie should talk about why some people rely upon drugs as a crutch and be sure to discuss the film’s bleak portrayal of adult drug use as well as that of the college kids. Other issues to be discussed include the connection or lack of connection between the characters and the consequences of the choices we make.
Other films about end of the world parties include “Blue Angel” (Marlene Dietrich’s 1930’s breakthrough film) and “Cabaret” (the 1972 musical starring Liza Minelli). Those who are interested in movies playing with time and perspective shifts should rent “Go” (1999), a younger, softer styled “Pulp Fiction” (1994).