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American Psycho (2000)
|Internet Movie Database|
American Psycho tips its hand very early on when the camera pans
across a table thats laden with posh dinnerware and exotic dishes. It doesnt
matter what the setting is, the meaning of this shot is always the same, and the point
couldnt be hammered home any harder if The Beatles "Little
Piggies" was heard blaring over the soundtrack. American Psycho is another
paste-up indictment of materialism, and worse yet, its built on ideas and
connections that felt naive and incomplete even at the time they were conceived.
Its a block of stale cheese.
Based on Bret Easton Ellis novel, the picture is set among the mousse-slicked profiteers who ran amok in the late 1980s. (Some time machine: it takes us all the way back to yesterday.) Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a colossus within the merger and acquisition firm he works for, and his life is overflowing with the accoutrements of yuppie success the appliances and wardrobe and such relatively new goodies as CDs and mobile phones. He and his buddies are sitting on top of the world: their lives mostly consist of scoring reservations in New Yorks swanky restaurants, where they keep their eyes peeled for the Trumps.
But although Bateman is surrounded by people, hes alone in the world, lost (in his head) in a sea of bad pop music, skin care products, and the other detritus of modern life. Hes become such an outer shell of a man that his coworkers even mistake him for other people. Worst of all, his values have turned him into a monster. His obsessions with his body, with status, with things have made him dangerous to anyone who threatens his peace of mind. Even a colleagues tony business card can push him into a murderous rage.
Ellis novel caused an uproar when it was published because it described Batemans killing spree with sadistic gusto, at a level of detail that the mind normally refuses to contemplate. Director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and her co-writer, Guinevere Turner, have defanged the book by turning the murders into cartoon killings that almost certainly occur only in Batemans head. Gone are the tortures and suffering that punctuated the book, and absent too is most of the material that many readers construed as thinly disguised misogyny. This Patrick Bateman is an equal-gender murderer, and the single onscreen killing of a woman seen in long shot is played as a parody.
Harron hits a couple of bulls eyes, as when one of Batemans victims drunkenly surveys a living room thats been draped in tarps and newspaper he looks like a cow trying to make sense out of a slaughterhouse. And the moment when Bateman pays off two prostitutes as they leave his apartment is the most chilling one in the movie: the muted accusation in their faces is tinged with groggy wonder at the horrors hes inflicted on them.
But the movie doesnt have any outlook on Bateman beyond the notion that hes a product of his environment, and having him do stomach crunches in front of a TV thats showing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre simply isnt the wicked idea that Harron thinks it is. Before dispatching his victims, Bateman lulls them off guard with faux critical dissections of the eras pop musicians, but whatever you feel about "Susudio," its hard to picture Phil Collins as Muse to a psychopath. When Batemans colleagues jeer at President Reagan for dodging responsibility in the Iran-Contra scandal, its plain that the movie has only a skin-deep appreciation of its own time period in real life these guys would have applauded Reagans duplicity. And while Ronald Reagan did as much as anyone to create the shark-eat-shark mentality of the 80s, American Psychos equation of his doublethink with the craziness inside Batemans head is exactly the kind of tar-brush tactic for which Reagan himself was famous.
These promiscuous cultural references peak out in a long and shapeless spoof of slasher flicks, but the movies nuttiest decision occurs immediately afterwards when it switches course and asks us to empathize with Batemans anguish that is, to take him seriously. Just when American Psycho should be whirling off into some hard, dark place, it goes all soft and lumpy. Its no surprise, though, that it cant find fresh ground to plow, for Harron brings to her work all the personality of Mr. Spock. You check off each of her decisions the dehumanized interiors, the glittering surfaces, the gaping dead space around the characters and think, "Yeah, thats just what I expected."
Bale enunciates his syllables like a ferocious young John Houseman, and he strikes a lot of arms-akimbo poses in his absurdly buffed body and Nino Cerruti suits. Its a flamboyant performance, but its also a humorless, monotonous one, and by the end of the picture youre dying for him to do something startling. Reese Witherspoon is dismally miscast as Batemans fiancee, while Willem Dafoe, as a detective who pops in and out to provide a simulacrum of suspense, smiles his way through a nothing part. The movie does best in the hands of Chloe Sevigny, as a secretary who harbors a crush on Bateman, and Cara Seymour, as a streetwalker whom he terrorizes. Both women give harrowing, immediate performances they rattle the movies over-prepared surface.
One suspects that American Psycho would love to implicate everyone in its grimy vision, but that it knows how laughable it would be to smear us all as closet murderers just because we visit tanning salons or own high-definition TVs. So its fuzzy around the edges, and it pretends that Bateman is an emblematic case even though the defining characteristic of the 80s-era yuppie was his utter lack of remorse. American Psycho would make a fine bookend with last years Fight Club: both movies use cultural artifacts and mayhem to make facile comments on the perils of capitalism, and both let their central ideas dissolve in a solipsistic haze. American Psycho has all the trappings of a thoughtful film except profundity its a swimming pool without a deep end.
- Tom Block