The Rules of Attraction

If it is possible, “The Rules of Attraction” actually isn’t trashy enough to do justice to its source material.

That would be Bret Easton Ellis’ 1986 novel, a scathing satire of debauchery among college students in the mid-80s. The book is fueled by cocaine, beer-drinking and wanton sexual promiscuity, highlighting how some people reacted to the general economic prosperity of the Reagan Era.

The movie, adapted and directed by “Pulp Fiction” co-writer Roger Avary, retains only some of the bacchanalia that pervades the novel. A worse misstep, however, is in moving the setting from 1985 to approximately 2002, without altering anything else. The ideals are mid-’80s, as is the drug of choice (cocaine). Even the soundtrack is full of Depeche Mode and George Michael. Avary has put the clothes and hairstyles into a new decade, but left the movie’s soul back in the ’80s. Put simply, “The Rules of Attraction” doesn’t work in a 2002 setting. That’s not to say college students don’t still party 24 hours a day; it’s just that the partying is different, and it’s no longer a reflection of America in general.

That is how the movie does not live up to the book. How the movie lives up to itself is the real issue, though, and taken on its own merits, it’s a technically proficient, well-acted bit of unimportance. Few films have worked harder to accomplish such nothingness.

In an extended opening sequence set at a party, we meet the principal figures, all students at a New England liberal arts college. There is Lauren (Shannon Sossamon), who pines for her boyfriend Victor (Kip Pardue), who is gallivanting in Europe. There is also Paul (Ian Somerhalder), her bisexual — but mostly gay — ex-boyfriend, who develops a crush on the mostly straight Sean (James Van Der Beek). There is also a large supporting cast of revelers and sexual predators; one gets the sense that attending this particular college requires having a substantial tolerance for sleep deprivation and beer.

Through various characters’ points of view, we see every angle of the party and its follow-up parties. The film is about truth being relative, and things not being what they appear to be, and Avary adapts Easton’s multi-narrator novel with infectious enthusiasm. Things occur, and then the film reverses itself, moving the characters back to the starting point so we can observe everything again from a different perspective. It is vastly entertaining to watch.

Avary takes delight in breaking down expectations. Witness the casting of squeaky-clean TV heartthrob James Van Der Beek in a role fraught with sexuality and obscenity. Former child star Fred Savage also appears in the film as a doped-up acquaintance of Paul’s.

For his part, Van Der Beek plays Sean with a combination of frustration, lust and rage that is altogether appropriate. Sean seems unsure where to put all of these sharp emotions; Van Der Beek is only slightly more sure, as if his performance is just barely under control.

Brilliantly decadent in their one scene are Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz as the socialite mothers of Paul and Paul’s friend Richard, respectively. Richard is played with fiendish, drunken abandon by newcomer Russell Sams.

There is a divine scene where the screen is split down the middle, one half following Sean and the other half on Lauren. They eventually meet in a hallway, each half of the screen giving us a close-up of the character speaking to the camera, which represents the other person. Then, in a moment that gives movie nerds like me goosebumps, each camera pivots, bringing the two halves together seamlessly into one shot. I doubt it symbolizes anything, but the coolness of it makes it worth the effort.

Another tragic, darkly funny scene has a girl committing suicide while Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” plays on the soundtrack. That black, caustic sense of humor is the film’s best attribute, though it virtually guarantees its mostly likely audience — teenagers — will not enjoy it.

So there is much to admire here, but what does it all add up to? Alas, the danger of dealing with characters who go nowhere and do nothing is that the film may turn out to go nowhere and do nothing right along with them. “The Rules of Attraction” falls into that trap, recounting the death of romance so effectively that, sure enough, the movie is devoid of feeling. Overall, it is like the one-night stands its characters constantly undertake: fun while it lasts, but ultimately unsatisfying.

C+ (1 hr., 42 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some graphic sexuality, a lot of drug use, some blood and violence.)