The Rules of Attraction

I have always found Bret Easton Ellis novels difficult to read and digest, as the subject matter tends to touch a nerve that few other modern writers hit.

In Ellis’ best-known and most controversial work, 1991’s “American Psycho,” readers squirmed as they were planted into the mind of Patrick Bateman, a mass murderer whose acts of sadism were matched only by the blind materialism, greed and name-dropping he employed as an Wall Street investment banker. He has two facades, like a common-day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – by day he focuses on mergers and acquisitions; at night, he performs murders and executions, to rephrase Ellis’ work.

Utilizing a detached writing style in his works, Ellis is able to get the reader both into the scene that he writes of and cut to the bone of the characters’ psyches, almost to an uncanny degree. In “Psycho,” Ellis has Bateman utter this memorable line: “There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed, and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful eradication. I was simply imitating reality Ellis — endows this self-awareness in most of his works’ protagonists. Sometimes this takes the place of good personalization.

I remember queasily battling my way through “Psycho” just so I could be done with it, an experience I expect to have shared with other readers. At the same time, though, I couldn’t put it down if I had willed myself to. “The Rules of Attraction,” Ellis’ take on college life, is no different with the feeling it leaves the reader, akin to viewing a train wreck. And it is not a pretty one.

This is the second book Ellis had written, published four years before “American Psycho” was released on bookshelves alongside some cries of censorship. Although “Attraction” utilizes characters from Ellis’ first novel, “Less than Zero,” it also serves as the introductory point for several people who become the focus of his later works, like the aforementioned Patrick Bateman.

The Book
Beginning in the fall of 1985, “The Rules of Attraction” focuses on the love triangle between three students at Camden College. Like Ellis’ other works, it’s told in narrative form, as well as from multiple points of view, including several selections in French. There is no discernable beginning and end- this is emphasized by the book beginning in mid-sentence.

Readers are first introduced to Lauren Hynde in a flashback, as she loses her virginity her freshman year to two men after a Dressed to Get Screwed Party, and her understandable horror the morning after. A bit of a dreamer who is battling bouts of depression, she is a late-year student who still has not chosen a major. Another character makes the comment that “it seems to me that Lauren was just writing one long poem and I told her honestly one night- that a lot of it didn’t make sense to me.” What holds true for her non-proficiency at poetry is also true of Lauren. Ultimately, she yearns for Victor Ward (who would become the focus of Ellis’ “Glamorama”), who is backpacking across Europe without a thought in her direction.

The other two central characters aren’t given as interesting an introduction, and are more cookie-cutter characters. Sean Bateman (yep, this is Patrick’s younger brother) is built from the same mold as Lauren in his idiosyncrasies. He is also something of the campus Lothario– although many seem to qualify for this title– and deals drugs on the side. The last character readers are introduced to is Paul Denton. An intelligent and easily-irritated fellow, he used to go out with Lauren, but now has eyes for Sean. After a little build-up, Sean and Paul become involved with each other.

From this relationship emanates an odd twist: Paul is the one who talks about the day-to-day relationship while Sean almost completely avoids the subject; it seems he’s somewhat in denial. When he does talk about it on a peripheral level, there is a great deal that doesn’t synch. As Lauren says at one point in the novel, “Life is like a typographical error: we’re constantly writing and rewriting things over each other–that is true of this relationship. Though this is an interesting approach by Ellis, especially given that he came out of the closet himself right before the release of “Glamorama” (not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course), this is perhaps something that could have been expanded. It could have been met with some interesting results. This was what I found most interesting in the novel- how people perceive each other and how those perceptions are sometimes dead wrong. But, I digress.

The relationship between Sean and Paul quickly falls apart when Paul is forced to travel to Boston to meet with his mother “to talk” about his parents’ forthcoming divorce. Paul is missing a Dressed to Get Screwed party, where Sean quickly moves on to Lauren. Sean is being stalked throughout the first part of the novel, and he assumes through several rational coincidences, that Lauren is incredibly infatuated with him. She goes along with this and they wind up in bed together; she won’t look at him and begins to cry. Somehow through this they begin a relationship that ends in an aborted pregnancy and Sean leaving college for parts unknown.

Paul’s journey to Boston and the subsequent dinner he has with his mother and their family’s friends, the Jareds, is probably the most resonant of the novel. After going to Sarah Lawrence and through a punk phase, Richard Jared has an incredible falling out with his mother during dinner. If there’s any moment in the book that is the train wreck’s point of impact, it is here. It makes you wince. We have all borne witness to moments like these. And this quick intersection doesn’t even take place on the Camden College campus.

I wish I could say that Bret Easton Ellis used the book as a character study of the stereotypes that exist in college or the death of romance (as the trade paperback’s back cover implies), but that would be too kind. Ellis is mostly sowing wild oats here. I’m not a fan of Ellis’ narrative style, and I wouldn’t recommend it to those looking for a challenging book. Most notable is that you can see the jumping-off point for “American Psycho” here, just as you can glean the beginnings of “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy” from Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch.”

I don’t think you can pretend that the novel is anything more than shlock. But it’s interesting shlock. “Dead Poet’s Society” it is not, nor does it aspire to be.

The Film and its Players

Perusing the filmmaking journal found on Roger Avary’s site (linked below), I have come to believe that the director of “The Rules of Attraction” is really a strange chap. This makes him a superb choice. Most know him from his directorial work on the twisted but well-made “Killing Zoe.”

The first thing that worries me about this adaptation, however, is that he also takes a screenplay credit for this project. Based on what the script Avary has supplied to Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, it sounds like he has chosen to amplify the novel’s carnal aspects. This is unfortunate. On the other side of the coin, Avary has assembled an intriguing cast for the pic, with most of the roles going to well-known actors and actresses who have become perhaps too closely associated with some of their past characters.

As Knowles wrote in July 2001, “[Avary’s] biggest problem to date is finding the people that embody the characters in Bret Easton Ellis’ insanely pitch black heartless evil book, and then have those people agree to play characters that completely slap everything that those actors and actresses have been portrayed as being in film thus far. This is the film for when the beautiful people are skinned alive and shown for being the shallow hateful spiteful asses that they can be.” He had said in an earlier report that the film will help “destroy those sugary fat free rice cakes of cinema.”

James Van Der Beek has the most at stake with his difficult role as Sean Bateman, after the long-delayed “Texas Rangers” flopped at box office amid horrible critical reviews. In addition, it was recently announced that he was entirely edited out of Todd Solondz’s upcoming “Storytelling.” I have doubts as to how effective he can be here as Bateman- the common viewer is going to see him as Dawson Leary of “Dawson’s Creek,” and I don’t think he will be able to get past that, in terms of acting ability. Will viewers, though, buy into him in this brutal roler This is the biggest question mark for the pic, and the thought process that begins from there brings only additional questions.

Shannyn Sossamon plays the role of Lauren- an interesting choice for her to make after her prudish role in Brian Helgeland’s “A Knight’s Tale.” A virtually-unknown lad by the name of Ian Somerhalder plays Paul. Thomas Ian Nicholas, Kevin Myers in “American Pie,” plays a secondary character named Mitchell, while Claire Kramer plays the role of his girlfriend Candice. Kramer is best known as the past season’s villain Glory on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Kip Pardue of “Driven” plays Victor, a part that sounds as if it has been vastly expanded from the novel.

Another question mark is Jessica Biel’s Lara, apparently a renumeration of roommate Judy in the book. Ain’t It Cool News describes the roll as “an absolute f*** doll in the film.” This is an odd move by Biel, who entered the public consciousness as the daughter Mary Camden in “7th Heaven,” then was heavily criticized for a scantily-clad spread she had done in Gear Magazine. She apologized for the shoot six months ago, right before she signed on to do this role. I guess there’s going to be another apology coming this spring from her once this film hits theater.

With the members of the cast already mentioned, Avary has done a great bit of conceptual casting here, as these are all actors that are known for their specific roles- mostly in teen-oriented product. The rest of the cast is also impressive, with Eric Stoltz, Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway. Fred Savage also has a part, for whatever that’s worth.

All this said, who the audience is for this filmr

“The Rules of Attraction” is going to be a tough sell for audiences, no matter how distributor Lion’s Gate Films looks at it.

Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself over the past month as I played with this column:

Has Lion’s Gate shot themselves in the foot by using actors best known for their wholesome roles, rather than going with unknownsr

How many of Van Der Beek’s fans will be old enough to pay for an opening-weekend ticket to this film, much less be interested in seeing him in this wayr

Does Lion’s Gate have the muscle to get this film on more than 1,250 screensr That was the largest amount of screens the distributor was able to muster for “American Psycho,” although that number quickly fell to three digits after the first two weeks.

Lions Gate will be forced to target the late teen/twenty-something market for this release, eschewing the WB audience that would be the most receptive audience. Unfortunately, they’re not going to have much of a choice on this. From reading the various AICN pieces (including Quint’s recent set-visit puff piece here) and Avary’s Journal, the film is certainly not going to receive a PG-13 rating, although I doubt Avary was shooting for this when he started playing with the script.

To the other extreme, I have a feeling Lion’s Gate and Avary is going to be butting heads with Jack Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America on even getting that R rating. They’ll probably have to re-cut some scenes. Even the R-rating is not insignificant in and of itself; there are now tighter restrictions on where their distributors can advertise. MTV’s Total Request Live is out for sure, as an example. Some of the ad buys that make the most sense cannot happen.

I have gotten some e-mail already saying how awful the casting is; in some ways, I think it’s brilliant—the art of conceptual casting is a tough one, and can often work against a studio in the bottom line. Not sure if it’s going to work in this scenario, but I like the chances Avary is taking.

I think we’ll have a better idea of how this film will be positioned once the first official trailer is released for this September film; these unanswerable questions have to lie dormant for now. I have racheted up my expectations for the film, though, based on the great image Lion’s Gate has released of Van Der Beek (linked above in the AICN article), which was released right before Christmas. With this picture, Van Der Beek truly does look like Bateman/Bale’s sibling.

But let’s set the bar for success, because I have a tendency to put the cart before the horse: I don’t see this doing much better than the $15 million “American Psycho” made in its three months at the box office. This number mostly has to do with the number of screens Lions Gate can secure for the film, not a reflection of being able to market edgy fare, as they have shown a great aptitude with the recent “Monster’s Ball.” But when films from major distributors often open on close to 3,000 screens or more, it’s harder for pictures from smaller studios (like Lion’s Gate) to secure screens and, consequently, box office.

Not that $15 million is an insignificant sum, as I think it’s important to note that “American Psycho” was a success in it’s own right. In some ways, “American Psycho” is a brilliant movie because of its focus on the peripheral levels of the novel (ie. the satire rather than the violence). This movie might bring in the same type of crowd that “Psycho” did, but it’s going to be tough to get the level of attention that “Psycho” achieved in the press—which is where Lion’s Gate does its best work, rather than as paid advertising. Their media relations team is going to have to work hard to help the studio bring in moviegoers.

My gut instinct on achieving more than a sum of $15 – 20 million, though, is this: No way, no how; though I reserve the right to change this view. The ghosts of “crazy/beautiful” and “O” tell me that much.

Whatever happens, though, it’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out in the months ahead.

Rating: B+