Set at the fictional Camden College in New Hampshire, the film opens at the "End of the World" party, where students Lauren Hynde, Paul Denton, and Sean Bateman give apathetic interior monologues on their lives and briefly exchange glances with one another. Lauren, previously a virgin, takes a film student upstairs to have sex and passes out; she wakes to find herself being raped by a townie while the film student records it, and reflects on how she had planned to lose her virginity to Victor, her now ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, Paul, who is gay, tries to have sex with a jock, only to be bashed when it turns out the jock is deeply closeted. A bruised and beaten Sean is shown tearing up a series of purple letters, before approaching and having sex with a blonde girl at the party.
The plot then moves backwards several months to the beginning of the school year, and explores the love triangle between Lauren, Paul, and Sean. Misinterpreting Sean's friendliness, Paul mistakes him for a homosexual and makes several advances, to which Sean is oblivious. Concurrently, Lauren also finds herself attracted to Sean despite saving her virginity for her traveling boyfriend, Victor. Sean reciprocates her feelings, and assumes the anonymous, purple love letters he has started receiving are from Lauren.
While Paul is visiting his friend "Dick", Sean is seduced by Lauren's roommate Lara at the "Dressed to Get Screwed" party, who tells him that Lauren isn't interested in him because she has a boyfriend. Despite having sex with Lara, Sean regrets it and realizes that he is in love with Lauren. It is then revealed that another, unnamed cafeteria girl is the author of Sean's love letters; after seeing him leave the party with Lara, she sends him a suicide note before cutting her wrists in the dorm bathtub. Lauren, finding Sean with Lara, runs to the girls' bathroom in tears, only to find the unnamed girl's body, leaving Lauren extremely distressed. Sean, still believing Lauren wrote the purple letters, misinterprets the unnamed girl's suicide note and assumes Lauren never wants to be with him. Lauren decides to lose her virginity to her Art History professor Lance Lawson. But being married and worried about losing his tenure, he simply allows her to perform felatio on him instead.
After numerous failed attempts at suicide, Sean fakes his death and, unaware that Lauren recently found a corpse, unintentionally upsets her further when she finds him pretending to be dead. After stealing drugs from dealer Rupert, Sean tries to speak to Lauren again, asking only to know her. Lauren tells Sean he will never know her, and abandons him. She approaches Victor, who has finally returned to Camden College, only to find that Victor is having sex with Lara and does not remember who Lauren is, leaving her completely distraught.
Paul, upon finding a drunk Sean, tries to talk to him, parroting Sean's own words by saying he merely wants to know him. Sean coldly rejects him, using Lauren's words to say that Paul will never know him. Paul runs off in tears. Sean checks his campus mailbox in vain, only to find that the love notes have stopped. He is then cornered by Rupert and his Jamaican partner, Guest, and brutally beaten.
The three protagonists then attend the "End of the World" party and the plot returns to the introduction. After seeing Lauren heading upstairs with the film student, Sean finally accepts he cannot be with her, and tears up the purple letters he believes to be from her. It is then revealed that, rather than having sex with the blonde girl as he does in the intro, Sean was merely fantasizing, and he instead leaves his drink and exits. Paul and Lauren meet on the house porch and reflect on the recent events, as well as on Sean, whom they watch depart on his motorcycle. Sean begins narrating his final thoughts about Lauren, only for them to end prematurely as the film cuts to the end credits, which are run backwards.James van der Beek as Sean Bateman, a drug dealer. The character is in fact the younger brother of Patrick Bateman, the main character of American Psycho.Shannyn Sossamon as Lauren Hynde, a virgin who is saving herself for Victor, her ex-boyfriend, who is traveling through Europe. She develops feelings for Sean, which dissipate when she discovers him in bed with her roommate. Eventually she is raped by a "townie" at a party.Ian Somerhalder as Paul Denton, Lauren's bisexual ex-boyfriend. He develops a sexual attraction to Sean, who eventually rejects him.Jessica Biel as Lara Holleran, Lauren's promiscuous roommate.Kate Bosworth as Kelly, a girl from the party whom Sean takes back to his room.Kip Pardue as Victor Johnson, Lauren's promiscuous ex-boyfriend.Clifton Collins, Jr. as Rupert Guest, a high-strung drug dealer who is owed a large debt by Sean.Thomas Ian Nicholas as Mitchell Allen, a weaselly cohort who seems to idolize brutish Victor. It's suggested that he and Paul once had a relationship, but Mitchell could never admit to his sexuality and started dating Candice as a result.Russell Sams as Richard "Dick" Jared, an old friend and former fuck buddy of Paul's. His mother is a friend of Paul's mother.Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Eve Denton, Paul's mother.Eric Stoltz as Mr. Lance Lawson, a college instructor who tries to seduce Lauren.Fred Savage as Marc, a heroin-addicted student who owes Sean money for drugs.Theresa Wayman as "Food Service Girl."Jay Baruchel as Harry, a "friend" of Paul's.Joel Michaely as Raymond, a studentSara Dallin as HerselfKeren Woodward as HerselfClare Kramer as Candice, a student and party girlSwoosie Kurtz as Mimi Jared, Richard's uptight motherRon Jeremy Hyatt as the Piano PlayerPaul Williams as a DoctorCasper Van Dien as Patrick Bateman (scenes deleted)
The film was shot at the University of Redlands in California.
The film was one of the first studio motion pictures to be edited using Final Cut Pro. Using a beta version of FCP 3, it demonstrated to the film industry that successful 3:2 pulldown matchback to 24fps could be achieved with an off-the-shelf product. Roger Avary, the film's director, became a spokesperson for FCP, appearing in print ads worldwide.
Much of the source music and score is by the duo of Andy Milburn and Tom Hadju, collectively known as Tomandandy. Additional songs that are in the film are from the era in which the book takes place, including The Cure, Love and Rockets, Public Image Ltd., Blondie, The Go-Go's, Yazoo, and Erasure. The film also includes songs by The Rapture, Milla Jovovich, Der Wolf, and Serge Gainsbourg.
The Mono SR simplified noise reduction format for cinema was developed by tomandandy for the film in 2001-2002. It is an open source audio format that maintains the simplicity of monaural sound when motion picture delivery requirements include Dolby Digital noise reduction.
Releases and versions
Multiple versions of the film exist, as cuts were made so it could receive less restrictive ratings in the U.S. and other areas.
Lions Gate Films originally received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, but director Avary made cuts to the film in order to achieve an R rating, for "strong sexual content, drug use, language, and violent images".
The Australian version of the film is uncut, retaining 22 seconds that were removed in the R-rated US version.
The French 2-disc Special Edition entitled Les Lois de L'Attraction is the longest known version available. It contains a small number of scenes not shown in the US and UK DVDs and also includes more footage of the suicide scene (including the girl actually cutting into her wrists, instead of just seeing her reaction). It also includes more content in commentary tracks than the other DVDs available.
The uncut version was shown at UK cinemas. However, the BBFC, under its power as censor under the Video Recordings Act 1984, shortened the suicide scene, even at the highest (18+) rating.
The Rules of Attraction received mixed reviews—getting 43% "rotten" reviews from Rotten Tomatoes, and faring slightly better on Metacritic, getting a score of 50 out of 100 from reviewers, though with an average score of 7.0/10 from users. According to The New York Times, "if The Rules of Attraction,...is a much more faithful novel-to-screen adaptation than American Psycho, its reverence for its source proves to be its biggest problem. Where Mary Harron re-invented American Psycho as an elegant comic horror film, Roger Avary, who wrote and directed The Rules of Attraction, dives headlong into the depravity roiling in the student body of the fictional Camden College. Where Ms. Harron shrewdly created a surreal, high-styled ambiance for Mr. Ellis's monstrous humanoids to rattle around in, Mr. Avary wants to convince us that his movie's dissipated symbols of late capitalist excess really exist. The harder the movie tries to shock, the shriller it rings." Richard Corliss characterized the film as a "frenetically chic look at a daisy chain of collegiate craving...Sex, drugs and rack 'n' ruin; pretty people doing nasty things to one another...honestly, what more could you want in a movie?".
Bret Easton Ellis has said, "My favorite movie out of the four was The Rules of Attraction. I thought it was the only one that captured the sensibility of the novel in a cinematic way. I know I'm sounding like a film critic on that, but I'm talking about that in an emotional way—as the writer of the novel. I watched that movie and thought they got it in a way that Mary Harron [director of American Psycho] didn't and Less Than Zero didn't."
The film grossed $11,819,244 worldwide on a budget of $4 million, thus making the film a minor box office success.
At the 14th GLAAD Media Awards, the film was nominated for Best Film—Wide Release by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, losing to The Hours.
Though the film has inspired mixed critical reaction, it has become something of a cult classic, which was covered by The A.V. Club for their "New Cult Canon" feature. In 2012 Entertainment Weekly cited the film as one of the "50 Best Movies You've Never Seen". In an April 2009 interview, author Ellis stated that the film adaptation of The Rules of Attraction came closest of all the movies based on his books to capturing his sensibility and recreating the world he created in his novels. On Friday April 24, 2009, the film was shown on Film4 as part of the "Great Adaptations" series.
The DVD was released on February 18, 2003 by Lions Gate Entertainment. The DVD includes trailers and an audio commentary by Carrot Top, despite having nothing to do with the making of the film. He often comments on the attractiveness of each actress, begs Eric Stoltz for work every time he is on screen, and even occasionally sings along with the songs in the film, all the while making a number of self-deprecating jokes. The DVD also features other commentaries.
In May 2014, Bravo will produce a TV series inspired by the book and film written by Avary for Lionsgate Television with Greg Shapiro serving as an executive producer.