Adult Education

There's a moment in National Lampoon's Animal House when a wan, quasi-bohemian coffeehouse minstrel (played by songsmith Stephen Bishop) serenades a small flock of coeds with a solo acoustic rendering of "I Gave My Love a Cherry," only to watch his guitar get wantonly bashed to bits by archetypal college misfit/antihero John Blutarsky (the late John Belushi at his most naturalistic). Compared with the sneering snobs and antagonistic deans who want to exile Bluto and his fellow campus outcasts for good, this softly strumming boho doof is hardly a threat. But there's something larger at stake at the Delta house--namely, a tradition of authority-bucking stunts and bacchanalian benders that doesn't make room for a thinly veiled square using three-chord folk standards as a means to get laid. That was 40 years ago (or 24, if you'd rather calculate from when the movie was made).

In director Roger Avary's contemporary film The Rules of Attraction, roving campus stud and self-described "emotional vampire" Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) lures an inebriated blonde back to his dorm room and seduces her with his own brand of unplugged musical pheromone, segueing from an original song into the rote Counting Crows ballad "Anna Begins." There's no one around to interrupt this shallow, self-aware mating ritual: She gets teary, they fuck, and, in the end, avowed misanthrope Sean is horribly unsatisfied. It's the kind of empty carnal exercise that regularly preoccupies Bret Easton Ellis--author of the novel on which Avary's movie is based--but it's also one of many darkly funny interludes that forever tarnish the imagined dignity of Dawson's Creek. If you've been waiting for a more decisive nail in the coffin of the oft-maligned and nebulously defined teen-movie revival, grab your Junior Mints.

Love it or hate it--and chances are you'll find precious few footholds in between--Rules earns its distinction as one of the most audacious and controversial American movies of the year: a drugs 'n' doomed-romance picture as mesmerizing as any since Requiem for a Dream. Bleak sex, copious drug (ab)use, and vivid violence abound--and Van Der Beek isn't the only actor in the mix to break away from his perceived teen-idol type.

Dawson's creep: James Van Der Beek in 'The Rules of Attraction'
Lions Gate Films
Dawson's creep: James Van Der Beek in 'The Rules of Attraction'

The film is more or less a semester-in-the-life of Sean and his peers at Camden College, a New England liberal-arts haven where events such as the Dress to Get Screwed Party inspire fevered levels of exhibitionism and chemical intake. Fellow students and ex-couple Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) and Paul (Ian Somerhalder) join the fold to form a crooked kind of love triangle in which Paul pines for Sean's affection, despite the latter's preference for women, and Sean obsessively pines for Lauren, who ultimately hopes to lose her virginity in the "big, strong drama-major arms" of a creep named Victor. Amid canceled classes, coke binges, angry scuffles, and suicide attempts, their mismatched feelings are guzzled and spewed with varying degrees of resolution. By term's end, everyone involved has been teary, fucked, and/or horribly unsatisfied. Sound at all like your own post-adolescent experience? Whether literally or metaphorically, there's probably a yes in there somewhere.

But you needn't identify too closely with this gorgeous threesome to get a jolt out of their reckless and over-the-top escapades. The variously credited co-author of Pulp Fiction (and director of the justly forgotten Killing Zoe), Avary puts his experience with time-shifting narrative and potty-mouthed witticism to fine (if less than groundbreaking) use, matched by an adventurous, Gen Y-friendly aesthetic that employs split-screen effects and other slick visual perversions. Although certain elements of the book are notably absent (including an abortion for Lauren and an appearance by Sean's brother Patrick, a.k.a. the title figure in Ellis's American Psycho), the novelist has said that this is the best yet of his adapted tales. Concerned parents may well be confounded (er...mortified?) by his half-unhinged, morally tainted, and dizzyingly desperate vision of life after high school. Then again, the hard-partying college setting makes it somehow easier to forgive the kind of Caligula-caliber transgressions that have made other Ellis fare a challenge to digest.

Part of what makes Rules an especially sticky proposition onscreen is that Van Der Beek's Sean rolls a bunch of familiar types into a willfully enigmatic one: the popular heartthrob, the suicidal nihilist, the love-struck idealist, the fast-living drug dealer, the Neanderthal asshole, and on and on. Meanwhile, as with so many other movies combining ugly vices with comic dialogue and wistful meditations on life, love, and loneliness, the industry's karma police are bound by both duty and habit to argue over the film's M-E-S-S-A-G-E and whether or not it redeems the really graphic stuff. (The first five minutes alone feature a most unsavory date rape.)

Me, I'm stuck wondering how Rules will be received and remembered by audiences born after Bluto and his Revenge of the Nerds-era offspring. Is the class of '03 as desensitized to illicit behavior as we've been told? Is there any use for the toga-clad retread of National Lampoon's Van Wilder in a world where Fred Savage shoots dope into his toe and waxes metaphysical about the fabric of time? Have Avary and his cast of Teen People pinups unwittingly reinvented the college flick altogether--or simply slathered it with a few coats each of Tarantino and Aronofsky? No doubt more than a few newly enrolled American Studies majors have already raised their hands.

 
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