This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
The story concerns itself with a few days in the life of college student/drug pusher Sean Bateman and the people around him. It’s not acknowledged strongly in the film, probably because it’s largely irrelevant, but Sean is indeed the kid-brother of nutty-fruitcake-axe-wielding executive Patrick, and has a few shared characteristics. They both have a liking for class-A narcotics. They both share a certain detachment from reality. They both are so self-absorbed it’s a wonder that they notice anyone else at all.
Sean is played by James Van Der Beek. Jimmy’s probably known to you as Dawson. Y’know, from insufferable angst-filled melodramatic timefiller Dawson’s Creek. Even with this considerable negative baggage carried forward he puts in a good performance here, showing an unusually charismatic detached psychosis as he stumbles through life, veering from bizarre meetings with his drug dealer to party to another party to another party. Studying seems to be discouraged at Camden.
Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon) is the closest we’re going to get to an innocent in the movie. Her introduction to us is surprising, being raped at a party having passed out due to excessive drink and drug consumption. The movie rewinds the sequence of events and starts again a few days previously, with a reversed tracking shot following a beer keg, which is a mildly original way of jumping back in time. However, the ‘non-linear timeline’ thing has been mined to exhaustion in recent years and here isn’t used for anything more creative than giving the opening a mild shock. Lauren’s lack of emotion prevents it from being truly shocking, but lack of emotion is really the defining characteristic of everyone in the film by the end of it.
Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder) is a slightly predatory, pretty-boy bisexual. By the movie’s conclusion he probably ends up as the most sympathetic character, although that’s largely by default than design. He’s in love, or so he says, with Sean. Sean wants Lauren, the realisation of this halfway through the movie shocking him to think he may actually be in love with this comparatively pure soul. It seems to be the only flicker of humanity that Sean’s ever experienced.
Lauren at points grows affectionate towards Sean but is tempered by her love for the off-campus, on European vacation Victor. In an incredibly brief nutshell, it’s this little Paul-Sean-Lauren love triangle that dominates the plot of the film. This sells it a little short but most of the other scenes have little connection to anything else, despite being great fun. The most memorable moments are probably Sean’s run in at his dealer’s house with the manic, coke-addled Rupert (Clifton Collins Jr), being chased out of his house with a nasty looking cleaver and Paul’s encounter with his old friend Richard (Russell Sams) at a restaurant with their respective mothers. Richard insists loudly on being referred to as ‘Dick’, being very, very drunk. His delivery of ‘Well, fuck you!’ to his mother really has to be heard to be appreciated – I haven’t laughed so hard at a film in a while.
There are a few inserts that are less fun, mainly a brutal suicide of a peripheral character that is more graphic than affecting, the only way it could go given that the victim is not a character we’ve really had any interaction with. It’s points like this that probably earn the film its criticism, the most shocking image in a film full of bleak nihilism, meaningless sex and meaningless lives. It seems to be suffering from Trainspotting syndrome, where a large number of people seem to be exhibiting point-missing on a Herculean scale. Just as Trainspotting was seen to somehow be glamorising drugs, Rules is seen as a taciturn approval of this pointless and soulless way of life, when it’s actually highly critical of it.
Avery’s direction is slick but ultimately as shallow as the characters of the story. The use over-use of stock reversal exposes this ‘non-linear’ stuff as the cheap attention grabbing stunt that it is, perhaps acknowledged by Avery himself in his decision to scroll the credits backwards. His use of split screen techniques screams ‘student film’. It’s commendable to try to inject some originality into the staid methods abounding, but nothing used here will be remembered as an example of stunning technique. That said, it very nearly managed to hold my attention for the entire film, although it could perhaps stand to have ten or twenty minutes trimmed from it.
It’s major flaws stem from the novel, though. ‘Flaws’ here is subjective, what works in the novel doesn’t work in a movie. There’s little in the way of plot, as with the novel. This is largely because no-one here does anything worthwhile, it isn’t in their character. They are all shallow, vapid, one dimensional people. As this is a character study of these chaps the film therefore at times feels shallow, vapid and one-dimensional. Sadly much of the novel has been toned down, in the movie Sean never sleeps with Paul, and as such his ‘relationship’ with Lauren doesn’t have quite the same impact. It’s a love triangle without love, or even the sex – unusual given the amount of it that’s displayed on-screen.
Sean has been made more sympathetic here, rather than the amoral bastard of the novel we have a guy who just seems a bit thoughtless and continually hopped up on goofballs. It in some ways helps the movie as you can very nearly feel sympathetic towards him, but for me that was never the point of the novel. Sean never shows any hope of, or inclination for redemption, and so when it never arrives in the novel it’s entirely justified. For the Diet Sean of the movie, as he rides off into the dark of the night it feels wrong, as though there ought to have been at least a glimmer of a hope for him. This may perhaps have been less true to the novel, but if the rest of the film isn’t why should the ending be?
There are genuinely great moments in here. Another gimmick film-making method of time-lapsing Victor’s European vacation into about a minute with his breathlessly speedy running commentary is wonderful. The five minutes or so Dick is on-screen raising hell are glorious. There may be a few too many shots of Van Der Beek leering, but otherwise it’s a great performance, down to the comic timing displayed in his internal monologue as he follows his path of self destruction. The contrast with Paul’s thoughts is as stark as it is funny on occasion. As Paul eloquently thinks around the abstract concepts of his unrequited love, Sean’s thoughts are no more complex than “I’m hungry”. The soundtrack and the set dressing is a strange mix of 80’s and present day stuff, with songs from The Cure mixing with a preponderance of Imacs (that’s the proper collective noun, I think). A brave attempt to match the timeframe of the novel with one that fits the kind-of updated timeframe of American Psycho.
I genuinely don’t know how to rate this film, and apologise if this little rant hasn’t helped you work out if its worthy of your time. I’d say it is. Re-reading this review it sounds far more negative than I’d intended it. I genuinely enjoyed watching it, and certainly wouldn’t mind seeing it again. However, having thought about it, I don’t think it’s a prime example of film-making or a great example of fidelity to the source material. Where American Psycho made the unfilmable filmable while still retaining true to the spirit of the book, Rules misses something somewhere along the way, and its impact is lessened. At the end of the film there’s no real lesson learnt for us, just a sense of gladness we aren’t as shallow (hopefully) as the caricatures Easton-Ellis has drawn for us.