Aside from 1994's widely panned Killing Zoe, writer/director Roger Avary exists on the cinematic radar only because of his former affiliation with Quentin Tarantino; Avary has always given the impression that his contributions to QT's screenplays were far more substantial than the appropriation-friendly auteur would acknowledge. So it's no surprise that this film, with its technical razzle-dazzle and narrative contortions, comes off as a desperate cry for recognition. "Look at me!" Rules is shouting, "I can wow you just like Pulp Fiction did!"
And it can, to a certain extent. There are moments of filmmaking daredevilry here to knock your socks off. One scene begins with a split-screen following two characters as each starts the day; the two cross paths, at which point each half of the screen is a point-of-view shot, seen through the eyes of the character on the other side of the screen. As the characters flirt, the individual images dolly back in precise choreography, until the two images mesh into a single large one.
Then there's the long opening party sequence, in which three protagonists out of a crowd are introduced in scenes that fracture linear time in a way we'd expect from Tarantino. But Avary's method of linking them is his own: he spins time backward after each vignette, taking a different path back through the crowd than he took forward. It's showoff-y in the extreme, but the trick does depict the party's dynamics in a meaningful way.
All this virtuosity is in the service of characters with hardly a drop of virtue. Novelist Bret Easton Ellis isn't known for depicting happy, wholesome people, and Avary puts a hyperbolic spin on the depravity in Ellis' book. "Dawson's Creek" star James Van Der Beek (who plays Sean Bateman) may have missed out on mucking up his image in Todd Solondz' edgy Storytelling (his part of that film was cut), but he makes up for lost time here: At every opportunity, Avary shoves the camera into Van Der Beek's leering face, the actor's eyes glassy and inhuman, as Bateman proves it's possible to be a hedonist without experiencing pleasure. (Though there's little pleasure here, there's a ton of sex: Even during press screenings, Avary was negotiating with the MPAA to avoid an NC-17 rating.)
Bateman is reprehensible, a witty but morally defunct college student whose one spark of humanity revolves around a pipe dream. Practically none of the inhabitants of Camden College are any better. Paul Denton, a gay man who can't fathom why he gets nowhere by cuddling up to straight guys, is so self-centered that he reacts to the news of a friend's attempted suicide by pouting over which shirt he should wear. Even Lauren, who appears to have a heart, winds up sinking to the level of those around her.
All of which would be fine, were this a simple portrait of depravity. But certain cinematic gestures here - a snowflake that lands on a desperation-warmed cheek and turns into a tear, for instance - hint that Avary intended to humanize these devils. If that's the case, most viewers will agree he failed; the director gives us too much soulless sex and joyless intoxication for us to hear a genuine heartbeat within these hollow chests. It's almost as if Avary were unconsciously responding to those critics of Pulp Fiction who complained that we were made to like the bad guys too much - there, we identified with murderers and drug dealers; here, even the hopeless romantics look like aliens.