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Up Dawson's Creek Without a Paddle: James Van Der Beek suffers a collegiate setback in 'The Rules of Attraction.'

Pillow Fight

'The Rules of Attraction' is even less than 'Less Than Zero'

By Richard von Busack

THRIFT SHOPPERS can still discover Spy Magazine's Cliff Notes to Bret Easton Ellis. This crib sheet includes a valuable schematic guide to who slept with whom in Ellis' egregious novel The Rules of Attraction. Now that this dreadful book joins Less Than Zero and American Psycho as a movie, viewers without the flowchart are on their own. That's no handicap, since there's no reason to follow the plot. The film consists of a series of blustering vignettes during the first three months of school at "Camden College." (The college was based, to the point of libel, on Ellis' Bennington, a fountain of good-looking but awful fiction writers in the Reagan years.)

Every wastrel college kid since F. Scott Fitzgerald suffers from a lethal combo of guilt and self-involvement. That's the source of their inner fears that their keg parties and sexual dogpiles are bringing down society. Hence the climactic "End of the World Party" that begins and finishes the film version of The Rules of Attraction. Unlike Ellis' snobbish, upper-crust automatons--take it from a real college wastrel--many students are as inwardly sensitive as they're outwardly out of control. (Certainly, it was all a lot more exciting than Ellis pretends it wasn't.)

Director/co-writer Roger Avary--who wrote the geek scene in Pulp Fiction--skips around in time and tempo, accompanied by one terrific soundtrack by tomandandy. Amusingly, Avary makes Camden College a school abandoned by the teachers. The only classroom we see the inside of has "My wife left me for my TA; all classes are canceled" scrawled on the blackboard. In unusually innovative use of split screen, Avary slides around to show one seducer watching himself, detached, as he slips into action. A quick sex, drugs and rock tour of Europe, rattled off by actor Kip Pardue, has nothing to do with the plot, yet it's the sharpest episode.

Despite his technique--and despite cameos by an uncredited Paul Williams and Eric Stoltz--Avary has enrolled a class of terminally indifferent actors. The acting keeps the film from being sleazy enough to recommend. As a coke dealer, Clifton Collins Jr. gives the worst performance of the year, with Russell Sams (who has convinced himself that he's Jim Carrey) as runner-up. In the leads, Jessica Biel of Seventh Heaven plays the bad, blonde Lara. Her fellow WB network refugee James Van Der Beek, a 99-cent-store James Dean, co-stars as the cynical yet softhearted campus stud Sean Bateman, who loves Lauren the virgin (the lovely but barely directed Shannyn Sossamon). I take it we're supposed to fear for Lauren's hymen, or wish that she and Sean could get together and find true love, but Avary won't buy it, though there's enough residual boy-meets-girl sentiment left in the original story to clog the film. Avary dances around the basic badness of Ellis' novel, but he stumbles over its central earnestness. He is unable to find a way around the emetic sight of Van Der Beek weeping in the snow, as if he were in an episode of Dawson's Creek. Essentially, this film's even less than Less Than Zero.

The Rules of Attraction (R), directed by Roger Avary, written by Avary and Bret Easton Ellis, photographed by Robert Brinkmann and starring James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon and Kip Pardue, opens Friday at Camera 7 in Campbell and selected theaters.

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From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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