Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Weighing In: The Rules of Attraction/American Psycho

Reviews of two films based on the novels by Bret Easton Ellis -- neither of which I've read...

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

In the late 1990's and early 2000's, there seemed to be a slew of movies depicting a provocative and explicit side amongst America's young adults. Cruel Intentions, Varsity Blues and American Pie (all from 1999), boldly went where few "coming-of-age" mainstream films went before: experimental bi-sexual romps in Central Park, whipped cream bikinis and X-rated flute "practice" (outside of band camp). These were certainly a far cry from the retrospectively tamer Animal House, American Graffiti or even Fast Times at Ridgemont High -- all of which were groundbreaking films at the time.

Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction goes a step farther. From start to finish (or should I say from finish to start?), the film portrays a New Hampshire college as the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Are the events that take place at this institution of "higher" learning every day occurrences? Probably not. Are they outside the realm of possibilities? These days, not at all. The Rules of Attraction is one of the better films within the "teen-angst" genre not because it's necessarily believable, but because you get what you pay for: a sobering dose of 100% pure teen angst -- no frills, no happy endings. It also doesn't hurt that the cinematography and slick camera play are brilliant. In fact, the most enjoyable part of the film -- and arguably one of the greatest four minutes in modern cinema -- is a recap of one character's (Victor) escapades while "studying" abroad in Europe. In flawless double-time dialog and through authentic looking home video footage, Victor recalls, amongst other things: "I saw the Arc de Triomphe and almost became roadkill crossing the street (all too true);" that Barcelona had "too many fat American students, too many lame meat markets;" and that Rome was "big and hot and dirty; it's just like L.A. but with ruins." He is spot on.

The film perversely tracks the lives of a handful of college students (do I dare use that word?) who only seem to study one subject: Sex. At the forefront is Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) -- a misogynistic, sociopathic hornball who has clear Freudian issues. Within a few minutes, we are introduced to the other main characters: Lauren (Shannyn Sossaman), an attractive but hypochondriacal proponent of abstinence who, ironically, finds herself in one sexual encounter after the next and her roommate, Lara (Jessica Biel), the obligatory airhead nymphomaniac who always has the right advice for her sexually-naive roomie ("If a condom is 98% safe, and he wears two, then you're 196% safe"). There is also the aforementioned Victor (Kip Pardue), who despite his more or less 5 minutes in the entire picture, we learn he briefly dated Lauren before leaving for Europe. Unfortunately for Lauren, his memory just isn't the same upon his return. Lastly, there is Paul (Ian Somerhalder), a gay, sexually frustrated student, fixated on becoming romantically involved with Sean; not surprisingly, the feelings aren't mutual. There is also a very comedic, albeit short scene featuring Fred Savage, who I think steals the show.

We get the usual Hollywood portrayal of "typical" college life: topless sunbathing (in NH?), male and female bi-sexual escapades, a lot of swigging straight from the whiskey bottle, mounds of cocaine and frat parties transplanted from the best of Girls Gone Wild (what are these kids so depressed about?!?). There is really no plot per se, but rather, a series of painful vignettes that examine what goes on inside the heads of a few rather emotionally unstable collegians. There are no winners or losers (but for one contrived suicide) and no one to root for or against. It's a numb kind of existence. In the end, it's quite literally live and learn for these students. After all, isn't that what college is all about?

Verdict: Middleweight

Spoiler alert: European flashback scene referenced above.

(make sure volume is on)

American Psycho (2000)

Just because a movie gets a lot of hype it doesn't mean it's a good film. Exhibit A: American Psycho. After 9 years of endless hype and (looking back) justifiable apprehension, I finally forced myself to sit down and invest 101 minutes of my weekend to watch the it too much to ask for my time back? Unfortunately, director Mary Harron, like her main character, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), preys on a superficial audience and offers no pay-off in the end. In reality, the film fails miserably as a "psychological thriller;" instead, I sense that it panders to those who think Wedding Crashers was "movie of the decade." Harron is not entirely to blame since apparently much of the script is based on the eponymous novel. Nevertheless, the film meanders without any continuity, and all too often, it borders on outright outlandish -- even for satire.

Bateman (the fictional older brother of Sean Bateman in The Rules of Attraction), is a delusional, corporate sycophant who has zero concept of culture, morality, and most pitifully, his inner self -- only a well-chiseled facade which perpetuates his repugnant narcissism. To make matters worse, he has a shallow appreciation for really bad 80's music (I think I actually know people like this); it suits him perfectly. Not surprisingly, all of his investment banker cronies, and I hesitate to call them "friends," are identical: they only care about themselves. However, Bateman differs from his coworkers in one regard: he possesses a vampiric blood lust -- he kills because he feels like it. Now, more likely than not, these murderous encounters are all in his head as the scenarios surrounding each event are just plain absurd. At least in The Shining, for example, we get some explanation behind Jack Torrance's descent into madness -- even if it was likewise a fantasy (compare with the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where no explanation for their repulsive behavior is needed; rather, we just accept that they are a bunch of backwoods crazies, far removed from any semblance of societal norms as opposed to say Bateman, who is a calculated, sophisticated and wealthy yuppie living in luxurious Manhattan). But, The Shining is a superior film -- if not a masterpiece. Here, we are not so lucky. Nonetheless, real or fake, Bateman is one sick puppy. There is a scene where Bateman and his colleagues engage in a sort of mutual masturbation over each other's business cards in the board room of Pierce & Pierce -- sadly, this is the high point of the film. No wonder there isn't one character in the entire ensemble we sympathize with -- not even Bateman's victims (except for maybe his secretary Jean [Chloe Sevigny]; but even her aloof, Iowa farm-girl routine doesn't seem plausible considering she works at a "dog-eat-dog," Wall Street investment firm).

Interestingly, it appears that someone in production, and I suppose Harron herself, had a serious fascination with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- the magnum opus of all modern horror/thrillers -- as it subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly appears throughout the film. Both Bateman and Leatherface wear masks -- Bateman's is made of exfoliating fruit extracts, Leatherface's, of human flesh. There is also a scene where Bateman is doing his "1000 crunches" while watching the iconic swinging chainsaw finale in the latter film -- a foreshadowing of things to come. And there are numerous references by Bateman to Ed Gein, the notorious Wisconsin killer whom Leatherface is apparently very loosely based upon. Maybe this was all in the book, I really don't know...and at this point, never will.

Verdict: Lightweight

--DS, The Weight


Anonymous said...

D.S. great post.

Given that this is a music blog, you left out one great scene in Rules of Attraction. If I remember there is a bizarre use of Donovan's "Colours." Great cinematic song, seemed to me to be always screaming to be put in a movie. Not sure it was used to its best efforts in this one.

keep up the good work.


WeightStaff said...

Agreed - very underrated soundtrack. We also get a well-placed rendition of Badfinger's "Without You" (sung by Harry Nilsson) and John Lydon's "Rise." And of course, "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band...


Rasp Polermo said...

I agree with your thoughts on Rules of Attraction. Thats a damn fine movie. I heard a rumor that they are making a movie based solely on the life of Victor and his experience in Europe. Thats would be a roller coaster of a flick.

As far as American Psycho goes, I enjoyed this one simply for what it was. A bad cliche of a horror film. Its got some funny lines and some bad acting, but its one of those movies that gets a little better every time you watch it. I guess I didn't take it as seriously as you did.

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Anonymous said...

I love your analysis of 'Rules' and agree with everything that is said about "American Psycho." It's unfortunate; the book is so eloquently violent and subversive, in the reader's face with violence almost making him or her numb to the acts at hand (Huey Lewis and the News, Patrick Bateman's ramblings about Whitney Huston). The movie is an absolute disservice to the novel and almost a hokey "one-two" of something that could have been an amazing psychological thriller and not a horror flick. Great work,

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but the best part in this movie wasn't even supposed to be in the movie.... When George Michael's "Faith" is playing and Richard, or "Dick", is giving the crew a strip tease on the bed of the hotel... BEST scene!! :)