movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


(© 2000 Lions Gate Entertainment. All rights reserved.)

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American Psycho
In 1991, celebrity novelist Bret Easton Ellis schemed to kick-start his withering career with a little book called American Psycho. It concerned a callow Wall Street trader in the gold-plated decade of greed. He named his Armani-clad antihero Bateman after Psychos Norman Bates and set him on a string of misogynist killings--each more viscous than the last and perhaps just a figment of the character's poisoned psyche.

Critics damned the dark classic as tawdry and salacious. Most didn't get the pitch-black humor or deemed the book too sincere a satire. Taken in the feminist hands of director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and co-writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish), the material loses its macho edge and becomes a mocking self-parody.

The opening scene, in which Bateman rattles off his personal list of designer grooming products, works well in setting the materialist tone. Bateman dons designer boxers and preens in a Manhattan apartment made of stainless steel. He cares for his body as if it's a luxury car. In the shower, he shaves with Mousse a Raiser. Afterwards, he painstakingly hydrates, exfoliates, and purges his perfect skin of impurities. He relieves himself in a bathroom bedecked with a Les Miserables poster, his reflection making a joke, albeit broad, of middlebrow ostentation. Bateman dines on sea urchin seviche in restaurants where a waiting list means next month. When asked what he does for a living, he replies, "Murders and executions." Bateman's obsessive behavior hints that he might have a Happy Meal short of a french fry. In case we didn't get it, he mutters point blank: "I think my mask of sanity is about to slip."

His obnoxious banker pals yak about elegant, ink-embossed business cards the way locker-room jocks brag about theirů(well, you know) and compare which restaurants have the best men's rooms for snorting coke. They can't believe there's such a thing as a girl with a great personality. This type of testosterone-heavy talk brings to mind a savvier movie by Neil la Bute, The Company of Men, or Mike Nichols' Wolf, which compared backstabbing yuppies to wolves in corporate clothing.

What compels Bateman to sprout fur and fangs? Is he merely misunderstood? Or does he hide darker motives? He starts off hacking his business associate, Paul Allen (the angel-faced Jared Leto, who receives similar damage in another consumer-based satire, Fight Club). Harron claims she had no intention of naming a victim after Microsoft's co-founder, but the irony is obvious. Bateman wiggles into a clear raincoat (he is an aesthete, after all) and lectures his prey (the majority of whom are females) on the subtleties of rancid pop radio before dissecting them with dental tools. Most of the violence takes place off-screen. A clinical sex scene (featuring a bored-looking threesome) almost garnered the movie an X-rating, proving, once again, how a basic human function unsettles some audiences more than gore.

The movie wants to say something meaningful, but it lacks the proper vocabulary. Christian Bale (the boy hero of Empire of the Sun and the newspaper reporter covering the glam-rock beat in Velvet Goldmine) has tackled some diverse roles in recent years. He gives a manicured performance as Bateman--less a living, breathing entity than a walking in-joke. He and his silk-suited cronies are supposed to seem so empty and interchangeable that even when Bateman is storming naked through his hallway with a chainsaw he's morphed into an invisible man. Once the blood begins to spurt, the plot disintegrates. The murder scenes make no sense, rousing confusion instead of disgust. After a while, they feel obtrusive. The film's brittle surface renders it too remote to work as a graphic movie about a maniacal man.

As a book, American Psycho was obsessed with movies (Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but as a movie, it fails to spin a compelling story. Since Harron and Turner belong to the missing Y-chromosome club, nobody can blame them for the sort of woman-bashing that plagued Ellis. His assault on morally-fuzzy corporate culture, the Reagan era's gods of rapaciousness, makes for easy metaphors. On screen, this hypocritical critique of frenzied capitalism tells more about its creators' self-importance than the society it pretends to ridicule.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]