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It ain't easy being a spoiled teenager 

The suits over at the WB network must be staggering around their offices in shock. Roger Avary's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction takes two of the net's biggest stars --- James Van Der Beek and Jessica Biel --- and uses them in family-friendly scenes involving coke-snorting, masturbation, an orgy, and hot same-sex action. And that's to say nothing of their scenes together.

            The good news for Van Der Beek is that he's good in Attraction. Very good, even. I pretty much forgot all about Dawson Leary (a pansy with a big forehead), as Van Der Beek completely became Sean Bateman (a total psycho with a big forehead --- and the younger brother of Ellis' American Psycho antihero). His character might be the least interesting of the three leads, but he gets the most screen time and logs in the most damaging performance.

            His Sean is a drug-dealing lothario at Camden College in New England, and in his first scene, we watch him lie to a blonde coed to get her into the sack, where and he realizes, while humping the dickens out of her, that it's the first time he's had sex sober in a very long time. The setting is the college's End-of-the-World Party (there are several more, including the Pre-Saturday-Night-Party and the Dressed-To-Get-Screwed Party), where Sean had planned on meeting the virginal Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), but scampered off with his blonde cutie when he saw Lauren disappear into a bedroom with another boy. Meanwhile, Paul (Ian Somerhalder), who came to hang out with Sean, tries to put the moves on a frat brother and nearly gets his ass kicked.

            The party, which actually happens at the end of the novel (everything else is a flashback), is the crux of Attraction. And it works because it gives us a vague idea of what each of the three characters are up to before zapping us into the past: Paul likes Sean; Sean likes Lauren; Lauren likes Victor (Kip Pardue), who is away in Europe; Lauren and Paul used to be an item. Attraction isn't so much a regular, linear story as it is a bunch of crazy stuff that happens (Warning: The book begins and ends in mid-sentence). Think of it as a glossy, well-lit Gregg Araki film set in New England.

            Attraction is almost pretentious, but I think that has more to do with Ellis than Avary, the latter of whom is Quentin Tarantino's former writing partner. Avary kind of vanished after the success of Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and the Oscar-winning Pulp Fiction, along with the relative thud of Killing Zoe, his directorial debut and only effort sans Tarantino. Here he throws a lot of different and interesting techniques at the screen. Most of the over-the-top cinematic trickery is kind of flashy, but it seemed to work very well. The opening scene, which is rewound and played back from the three different perspectives, definitely sets the mood, while the split-screen-into-one-shot of Sean and Lauren walking down the hall toward each other was brilliant. The pièce de résistance is a hyper-edited (by first-timer Sharon Rutter) look at Victor's entire European vacation, which encapsulates several weeks into about 70 seconds.

            While I will commend the directorial style 'til the cows come home, Attraction's story didn't do much for me. Okay, it's about spoiled kids with no direction, no goals, and no future --- we've seen that all before. Attraction mostly seems like it's out to shock, from the multiple suicide attempts to the professor (Eric Stoltz) who demands fellatio from his female students. If anything, it should cause a drastic decline in college attendance, as parents of teenagers will likely be chaining their kids up in the basement after seeing this.

            In Igby Goes Down, 17-year-old Jason Slocumb, Jr. (Kieran Culkin) is a cross between literary legends Holden Caulfield and Harry Potter, right down to his Gryffindor-colored scarf. They all want to get as far the hell away from their families as humanly possible, though Holden and Harry were never saddled with a lousy nickname like Igby by their kin. Even Harry's aunt and uncle look downright big-hearted compared to Igby's blue-blood home life, which features an institutionalized boob of a father (Bill Pullman), a pill-popping ice queen of a mother (Susan Sarandon), and a Columbia-bound brother (Ryan Phillippe), who constantly sets the bar so high that Igby never even bothers to try to clear it.

            If that wasn't enough to permanently damage a teenage boy, Igby is also physically smacked around by just about everyone he encounters, including his shrink, his filthy-rich godfather D.H. (Jeff Goldblum), and his classmates. It's no surprise Igby has flunked out of every private school on the East Coast and has a mouth full of enough sass to make Eminem stand up and take notice. It's his last expulsion that lands Igby, as promised by mother Mimi, in military school. When he goes AWOL and hightails it to New York City to hide out in one of D.H.'s renovated lofts, Down finally begins to take some shape after seeming like a train wreck for its initial 30 minutes. If you can make it this far, the film becomes much more enjoyable.

            Then again, that first 30 minutes might be enough to drive you right up the frigging wall (or out of the frigging theatre, as it were). At times, it seems as if every piece of dialogue is a punch line, and that's a pretty annoying quality for a film this tragic. As an example, Igby meets and falls in love with a Bennington-student-turned-caterer named Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), and shares the following dialogue with her:

            Sookie: "What kind of name is Igby?"

            Igby: "It's a name that a person named Sookie is in no position to ask."

            And later...

            Sookie: "You call your mom 'Mimi?'"

            Igby: "Heinous One is a bit cumbersome, and Medea was already taken."

            It's like a Woody Allen movie, except with much darker subject matter. And Igby's not the only perpetrator either, though he's usually the instigator. In addition to Sookie, he meets and moves in with one of D.H.'s many girlfriends (Amanda Peet) and her artist sidekick (Jared Harris), who produces about as much art as Ray Romano does. In other words, Down is full of extremely unlikable characters (including, to some extent, Igby himself) with no discernable means of income, but most of them get their just desserts. Meanwhile, Igby seems content to waste time until what he believes will be his inevitable breakdown, just like his pop.

            Down is probably a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, though it's likely to leave you pretty cold regardless of your overall level of cinematic enjoyment. The characters reminded me a lot of the irritating bunch usually found in Whit Stillman films, which makes sense, because writer-director Burr Steers (he's Gore Vidal's cousin) had a tiny part in Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (and Quentin Tarantino's first two films, as well). His debut, while slightly messy, is certainly promising. But Culkin comes out of this one smelling slightly rosier. It's extremely difficult to make a decent coming-of-age movie these days (at least I assume it is, since most of them are garbage), but Steers and Culkin both do a terrific job of avoiding the pitfalls that befall its brethren.

Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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