2000, R, 100 min. Directed by Mary Harron. Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Chloë Sevigny, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Guinevere Turner.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 14, 2000
Don't believe the hype: American Psycho is no more “the most disgusting film of the year” (as dodgy Brit tabloid News of the World tagged it) than it is the wittiest. Instead, it falls somewhere in between, neither bloodthirsty enough to trigger the gag reflex of anyone but the most anemic viewer nor clever enough to yield much in the way of particularly engrossing insights. Adapted by Harron and Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) from Bret Easton Ellis' scandalously violent novel of the same name, this tale of Wall Street psychopath Patrick Bateman (Bale) and his deadly doings is freighted with all manner of subtext, from its skewering of late-Eighties shallowness and greed to that decade's relentless pursuit of the body beautiful. The joke, of course, is that the sleek and sexy Bateman's idea of a beautiful body is one in pieces on the floor, on the ceiling, in the fridge. The hue and cry that has been raised against the film since it was announced is certainly as fascinating as anything in the film itself, as are the terrific chunks of grue excised by Harron and Turner. The script is shorn of Ellis' lovingly detailed descriptions of Bateman's murders in favor of cut-away, sound-effects-laden non-scenes. They're effective to a point, but the savage, maniacal glee of Ellis' character has been transformed into a cooly clinical killing machine in the film. The Bateman in the book wasn't content to merely kill his victims; à la Hannibal Lecter, he supped on their brains as well. Harron's Bateman not only fulfills his culinary quirks off-screen, he barely mentions them at all. The reason for this toning down is obvious and unavoidable, and so Harron has focused on those aspects of the book and character that she can mine without fear of overt recrimination. American Psycho, with Bateman's endless recitations of his daily cleansing rituals and workout regimen -- not to mention his fondness for the finest things in all aspects of his life -- act as a not-so-subtle comment on the Eighties culture of greed: In Bateman's world, “trickle-down economics” are red and wet and a bitch to get out of the carpet. There's a running gag in the film (and book) in which this psycho Wall Street shark (what he does for a living, exactly, is never fully explained) launches into an appreciation of his favorite bands before he dispatches his dinner/guests. The joke is that he drones on forever about Huey Lewis & the News and similar Eighties mediocrities -- his taste is as stillborn as his conscience, another Eighties slag. As Bateman, Bale (you may remember him as young Jim in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun) gives a winningly depressing performance. He plays Bateman as a crumbling façade, disguising - nothing. “I think my mask of sanity is about to slip,” says Bateman early on. Through Bale's bravura performance we get the curious pleasure of watching the shatter cracks flow apart, together, and explode; Bale's cool, clinically detached freak show is fun to watch, and disturbing too (though the film's ending will doubtless throw some viewers for an unintentional loop). He eclipses those around him, though Witherspoon elicits some fine whines, and Sevigny -- as Bateman's frazzled gal Friday -- is intriguing (though I'm still not sure why). It's a surrealist comedy, really, with Gordon Gecko meeting Gilles de Rais and Jack the Ripper for gimlets at Dorsia after the Exchange has shut down for the weekend. Hardly the death knell of Western cinema as we'd been promised.