The worst years of their lives

Film - Philip Kerr finds himself sober at a party where everyone else is high or drunk, or both

When Thomas Hobbes described the life of man as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short", I think he must have been referring to the life of a university student. There are probably still some lucky, privileged students who are able to go to university and tell themselves "et in Arcadia ego"; but for the vast majority the phrase "ad astra per aspera" will have a greater resonance. Things hardly look likely to improve for students now that the government has confirmed its plans to make them pay up to £3,000 a year in tuition fees.

Many years ago, Charles "Wing-nut" Clarke, now the Education Secretary, said that student loans would make education "the cabbage patch" of the middle classes; but few who paid any attention to Clarke at the time could ever have imagined that he was outlining a future policy initiative. Under new Labour, as British universities start to resemble their expensive American counterparts, the cabbage patch is starting to look more like the manicured lawn in some stately home that is closed to the public.

Where do American families find the money? At Harvard (admittedly one of the most expensive colleges in the US), the tuition fees to study English literature are more than $24,000 per annum. With room and board and books, it costs more than $140,000 to send Junior there for four years. And that's not including the drugs and the alcohol.

Small wonder that the premise of Stealing Harvard involves a working-class guy forced into a life of crime to pay for his niece to go to Harvard. It's a dreadful film and you should only go to a cinema where it is playing if you are hiding from the police, but it does make the point that "getting into college is the easy part". Not that the extortionate cost of going to university in America is anything new in the plot McGuffins of Hollywood movies. As long ago as 1946, in It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) is obliged to postpone his plans to study architecture at college because his parents can't afford it; and then shelve them altogether when his father dies and he has to take over the family business. Forty years later, in 1986, Soul Man saw a young white man (C Thomas Howell) pretending to be black in order to win a minority scholarship to Harvard Law School when his father refused to stump up the cash. American families might be asked to pay not just the fees but also a charitable donation to the university; in Orange County (2002), a school-leaver asks his wealthy father to donate money to Stanford in order to facilitate his acceptance on to the English graduate programme. In America, money doesn't just talk, it carries a loud hailer in each hand.

If American students do go to university, it is not with, in Jacob Bronow-ski's phrase, "a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence" so much as an excellent credit rating and a healthy checking account. But on the strength of The Rules of Attraction, it is difficult to see why any American kid would want to go to university at all. Based on Brett Easton Ellis's novel of the same name, this is the triangular story of three college kids whose consumption of drugs and booze and studious avoidance of all scholarly activity make Sebastian Flyte look like Freddie Ayer.

Written and directed by Roger Avary, who co-wrote Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino, there is nothing in this nasty movie of the humour or panache that distinguished that earlier piece. It may be that the college kids in this thoroughly depressing film are all so worried about student debt that they just want to spend as much time as possible getting out of their heads; but this merely makes things very boring for the rest of us. Watching The Rules of Attraction is like being stone-cold sober at a party where everyone else is high or drunk, or both. Not that these kids enjoy their drugs any more than they enjoy their casual sex. Nobody seems to enjoy anything very much except cheating on a drug-dealer or attempting suicide; and no one ever reads a book. On the few occasions when the characters wake up enough to take stock of their tawdry lives and latent sociopathies, they utter throwaway meaningless excuses about "the postmodern condition" - whatever that might be - in the same way as the dumbest students used to puke out the word "existentialism".

I'm not sure if this film is supposed to be a parody of teenage angst movies or if it is suggesting that American kids really are as shallow and screwed up as this. Either way it looks to me like a piece of crude exploitation; and I think there was more truth about American college kids in National Lampoon's Animal House (or even Porky's) than there is in this cynical, meretricious, ugly and very boring film.

The Rules of Attraction (18) is released nationwide; Stealing Harvard (12a) is on selected release