(R) 2 stars Ladies and gentlemen, Dawson has left the creek. Every Halloween, at least one local TV news show does a story about some fundamentalist Christian Church dragging their youths through an alternative to the haunted houses the elders find objectionable. Called "Hell Houses," if I remember correctly, the cautionary venues attempt to scare the devil out of kids by presenting visions of sin: young people smoking, drinking, taking drugs and engaging in illicit, and usually kinky, sex - with disastrous results! The news features generally conclude with some aged, self-satisfied leader of the flock saying that they are proud to show their children what "real" horror is like.
The Rules of Attraction, based on the 1987 book by Bret Easton Ellis, spends 110 minutes trudging through a cinematic Hell House, led by James Van Der Beek of Dawson"s Creek. Set at a New England liberal arts college, the drama/black comedy shuffles from one scandalous tableau to the next, depicting smoking, drinking, drug use, barfing, casual sex, date rape, encounters with drug dealers and suicide attempts. These horrors are enacted by a group of characters burned out despite their tender ages; ravaged, I guess, by the wages of sin. Late in the film, a young woman responds to an advance by a fellow student by telling him, "You want to know me? Nobody knows anyone else, ever. You will never, ever, know me." Oh, the bleakness of it all. How sad to watch these damaged souls delivering their existential soliloquies while walking along the edge of the gaping maw. As I watched the unrelenting parade of misery, all I could think was, "Have these kids ever even heard of Animal House?" You see, I remember life during the college years. I remember drinking, drugs, casual sex and all sorts of reckless behavior. It was fun. I tried to picture Delta House"s Bluto meeting these wilted flowers. What a lecture on school spirit he would give them, all while taking a whiz on their feet. Writer/director Roger Avary, who co-wrote the screenplay to Pulp Fiction, hypes up the proceedings with a variety of tricks. He underlines the non-linear format by running the film in reverse, and occasionally splits the screen and speeds up and slows down the film, just like they used to do on Bewitched. The film school hijinks are diverting, but fail to make up for the characters" lack of substance. As Sean, part-time drug dealer and the younger brother of American Psycho"s Patrick Bateman, James Van Der Beek scowls for virtually the entire film, while the camera repeatedly zooms in for leering close-ups of his massive head, which looks like a giant piece of candy corn. Van Der Beek"s chin is pointed and would draw attention were it not overshadowed by his arena-sized forehead. What a noggin! This guy could have played one of the aliens in This Island Earth without makeup. Reportedly, the 25-year-old actor is anxious to separate himself from the character he has played for years on Dawson"s Creek. Mission accomplished, James. Perhaps for your next film you could find a character that does more than grimacing and bullying. Two other TV vets pop up in supporting roles. Jessica Biel from 7th Heaven, a show that makes Dawson"s Creek seem depraved by comparison, plays Lara, a perky, barely dressed student who takes on the entire football team during a party, and Fred Savage from The Wonder Years has a funny scene as a stoner named Marc. Other amusing bit players include Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway as a pair of mothers whose lunchtime stupor is disturbed by an outburst from a brat, and Kip Pardue as Victor, delivering a jaunty speeded-up summary of a European vacation. Eric Stoltz entertains as a professor with very specific guidelines for female students interested in a sexual dalliance and Paul Williams, the singing, songwriting troll who was unavoidable in the "70s, contributes a great moment as a particularly assertive emergency room doctor. Back in lead role land, Ian Somerhalder projects sexual hunger and nothing more as bisexual beauty Paul, and Shannyn Sossamon, the feisty princess from A Knight"s Tale, plays Lauren, the closest thing to a sympathetic person the film has to offer. Sossamon tries hard to give depth to her character, but what is more noticeable is her hairdo, which is an absolute train wreck that somehow looks great on her. The fact that I"m addressing hairstyles here seems appropriate, given the shallowness of The Rules of Attraction. As a cautionary tale, it"s as unconvincing as a Hell House display. As a trendy black comedy, it isn"t funny enough, though it does have moments that work. Still, as far as absurd portraits of college life go, I believe I"ll stick with Animal House.