American Psycho (2000) American Psycho (2000) ***

     I have to say I donít see what all the fuss is about. I mean, Jesus, the way people have been talking about this movie ever since word got out that it was being made, youíd think a big-budget Hollywood remake of Cannibal Holocaust was in the offing. Iíve read things that mentioned people taking umbrage over the goddamned commercials for this movie being aired during shows that children might be watching. Iíve heard speculation about whether or not this is the sort of movie that could kill an actorís career. Come off it, people. American Psycho isnít even much of a horror movie, for Christís sake. Like the novel it was based on, it is first and foremost a satire of the ruthless, predatory Wall Street of the 1980ís, in which that predatory quality is extended into life outside the offices and off the trading floor. Not only is the movie not scary or horrifying, itís actually quite funny.

     For those of you who somehow missed hearing about it, American Psycho is about a young Wall Street hot-shot named Patrick Bateman (Reign of Fire's Christian Bale), who is the closest thing to a man with no soul that has ever appeared in a movie with no supernatural underpinnings. His own dialogue in voice-over (cobbled together from a couple of different passages of the bookís narration) says it best:

I have all the characteristics of a human being-- skin, hair, bones-- but not one recognizable human emotion, other than greed and disgust. There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense that our lifestyles are probably comparable, I am simply not there.

     Patrick is fabulously wealthy, and seems to be of relatively high status. He has a swank apartment in a prestigious and very expensive building, a big-ass office and a personal secretary at work, and a lawyer on retainer. He eats out for what appears to be every meal, always at outrageously pricey restaurants where the status-conscious management regards its potential customers in much the same way that a female bird of paradise regards the song-and-dance routines of a pair of dueling males, and where $400 gets you microscopic entrees for two, composed of ingredients whose individual edibility is open to question, to say nothing of what they might taste like in combination. All of Patrickís male ďfriendsĒ are shallow, amoral cokeheads, all of whom are having affairs with each otherís Valium-addled girlfriends behind one anotherís backs. The lifestyle led by this odious crew amounts to little more than a non-stop contest to see whoís got the biggest antlers; everything is an arena of one-upmanship-- salaries, stereos, business cards. (The funniest scene in the whole damn movie hinges on business cards, as a matter of fact. Bateman and his cronies are sitting around after a meeting, comparing cards, studying each otherís reactions. Batemanís first victim is the man that wins this surreal contest.) The thing is, though, that at no point is it ever suggested that any of these rich reptiles ever does any work. Oh, they go to work, alright, but they seem to spend all their time at the office making restaurant reservations, meeting each other for lunch, attending meetings, and generally goofing off.

     Eventually, it comes out that Patrick is not merely a predator in a metaphorical sense related to work, sex, or social interaction. He really is a literal predator, killing either those weaker than himself (he seems to specialize in bums and prostitutes), or those who threaten him in some way (like the guy whose business card is nicer than his). Thereís actually very little in the way of a plot here. Mostly, the film is just a series of loosely connected vignettes in which Bateman engages in varying degrees of antisocial behavior, while the other characters blithely ignore the subtle and not-so-subtle hints that he constantly drops about his secret life. (In one scene, he and his friends are bragging to some girls at a nightclub about their jobs. When asked what he does for a living, Bateman answers, ďI do murders and executions,Ē to which one of the girls responds: ďDo you like it? I mean, most of the guys I know who are in mergers and acquisitions donít really like it.Ē) After his murder of Paul Allen (Jared Leto from Urban Legend and Fight Club)-- a character whom the book calls Paul Owen, by the way-- Patrickís sanity comes ever more spectacularly unraveled, until he goes off on a positively hallucinatory shooting spree which may actually be just that.

     Along the way, Patrick variously mistreats his fiancee, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon of Fear); his secretary, Jean (Chloe Sevigny of Kids); and Courtney (Samantha Mathis of Pump Up the Volume), the drugged-out fiancee of one of his rivals and the woman with whom he is having an affair. He also contends with a private detective searching for clues to Allenís disappearance (this relatively small part is played by Shadow of the Vampireís Willem Dafoe). Events related to this subplot ultimately begin to suggest that everything we have hitherto seen has been a private delusion of Patrickís. Clearly, he really is a psycho, but it is at least possible (and to me, it looks rather more than that) that he is no psycho-killer, and that his crimes have happened only in his mind. This point draws attention to a broader phenomenon in the movie, the way in which the film uses events and dialogue lifted directly from the novel in such a way that they seem to say the exact opposite of what they do in the book. Author Bret Easton Ellis does leave a tiny bit of room in his novel for an ďall is not as it seemsĒ interpretation, but, to my way of thinking anyway, not enough to take the possibility seriously. I came out of the movie, on the other hand, almost completely convinced that Bateman had actually killed no one.

     The other major difference is one of tone, and this, I think, has much to do with why I didnít especially enjoy what honestly is quite a good movie. As I said before, American Psycho the movie is funny. Ellisís novel is not. Iím not going to say that I wanted the movie to be more like the book, because I had not yet read it when I saw the film. More importantly, I wouldnít want to see a movie that more closely resembled Ellisís American Psycho, because the book is fucking boring, and there are too many fucking boring movies in the world as it is. I think my dissatisfaction could better be articulated by saying that I was looking for a movie that more closely resembled the novelís reputation. Something sleazy and sordid and nasty and cruel. If you have been avoiding seeing this movie because you were afraid it would be all of those things, allow me to set your mind at ease. If, like me, youíd been looking forward to seeing it for that reason, prepare yourself for a disappointment. But if you think a blackly comedic character study in sinister vacuity sounds like a good time (and I do), this might be the flick for you.

 

 

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