American Psycho
Starring: Christian Bale, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny
Director:

Mary Harron

Writing credits: Bret Easton Ellis (novel), Mary Harron
Distributor: Lion's Gate  *  97 minutes
Rated: R
  (US 2000)

Every now and then, some lunatic decides to film a completely unfilmable book. Usually, these are quirky stories painted, rather than told, in beautifully evocative language, and the result is something ghastly like EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES or any of the film treatments of the books of Kurt Vonnegut. Yet sometimes, in the hands of the right director with the right vision, the result is a dreamy classic like FIELD OF DREAMS....or a slick, incisive, nightmarish vision like Mary Harron's AMERICAN PSYCHO.

axe.jpg - 14535 BytesThe story behind AMERICAN PSYCHO has made this film far more anticipated than it would have been had it hit theatres as "the movie version of that awful, violent 1980's book." But no, this is The Film That Leonardo DiCaprio Turned Down, and has become a curiosity object for that fact alone. This is a tremendous disservice to both the film and its star, Christian Bale, whose career will be either made (as it should be) or broken on the strength of this powerhouse of a performance.

During the heydays of 1980's Wall Street Madness, I was working in those rarefied caverns, not in the kind of brokerage house that bred characters like Patrick Bateman, but at Standard & Poor's, the home for arbitrage wannabes, where little Italian boys from Thompson Street strutted their SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER leftover stuff in those awful blue shirts with the white collars. Yet every day, I was surrounded by just the sort of guys that populate this film.

card2.jpg - 27307 BytesPatrick Bateman is a twenty-seven-year-old dynamo who allegedly works in mergers and acquisitions at a company deliciously and ironically called "Pierce and Pierce," though his job seems to consist largely of barking at his secretary (Chloë Sevigny) to wear high heels and make dinner reservations. He and a small army of lookalike compatriots are involved in a ever-escalating, round-the-clock game of "Mine's Bigger", as they relentlessly compare apartments (whose has the better view), women (whose is more willing to put up with the bullshit these guys dish out), restaurants (who is best able to get last-minute reservations where), and business cards (in this world, the ultimate status symbol). In succumbing to this culture, Bateman observes, "I have all the characteristics of a human being; flesh, bone, hair...but no emotions, save for greed and disgust."

tan.jpg - 13377 BytesWith a stronger personality to balance this level of self-awareness, Bateman might have the courage to stick his head out the window à la Peter Finch's Howard Beale in NETWORK and scream, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." If Bateman were a woman, he would take his frustrations out on himself, perhaps becoming bulimic, perhaps cutting slits into his forearms. But Bateman is a dweeb, albeit a well-dressed one, and so utterly sucked into his yuppie game of one-upmanship that despite his perfect tan and obsessive-compulsive morning ritual of exercise and herbal exfoliating shower products (lovingly described for the theatregoing audience), he is going slowly mad, feeling increasingly compelled to act out his homicidal urges in an ever-escalating frenzy.

Bret Easton Ellis was part of that insufferably hip 1980's literary Brat Pack that also included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney and that led to a string of horrible movies starring their Hollywood equivalents, the "Where Are They Now?" crowd, such as Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, and the Scuzz King Himself, James Spader. When AMERICAN PSYCHO was published, it created a not-so-minor scandal in the publishing community that was positively prescient of the kind of "copycat crime fear" that permeates Hollywood today. "Misogynistic!" the critics howled. nightstreet.jpg - 19778 Bytes

But Harron's film is, if anything, more an indictment of male insecurity and status-seeking than hostile to women. It is also bitingly, scathingly funny. From the minute the opening credits roll, and what seems to be blood turns into the sort of "raspberry coulis" that used to be relentlessly and ubiquitously drizzled on overpriced desserts, we know that we are in for a very unusual slasher film. Most of the actual violence takes place off-camera, save for the blood, which is splattered starkly against aluminum appliances, white furniture, and Bateman's stiffly starched white shirts. Except for Bateman's murder of a homeless man and his dog, which is unrelentingly disturbing, the murders that do take place are so bizarrely punctuated by Bateman's pseudo-intellectual ranting about emblematic artists of 1980's crap music (such as Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston, and the Master of Dreck himself, Phil Collins), that they are laugh-out-loud funny.

A character like Patrick Bateman is either an actor's nightmare or the role of a lifetime, and Christian Bale's performance is nothing less than astonishing. Bale has until now been one of those middle-level British actors you'd hardly have noticed if you hadn't known that he was the kid from Steven Spielberg's underrated masterpiece EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Go back and rent this film, and you'll see that this performance is so natural, so multi-layered, it's right up there with Haley Joel Osment's mesmerizing turn in last year's THE SIXTH SENSE and the even more jaw-droppingly perfect four-year-old Victoire Thivisol in the 1996 French film PONETTE as one of the best kid performances in a generation.

But kid actors grow up, and often have a difficult time making the transition to adult roles. Bale has had more success than most, in a consistent, if hardly earth-shattering, series of turns as the smartassed newsboy Jack Kelly in the bizarre musical NEWSIES, the swing dancer-turned-Nazi in SWING KIDS, the long-suffering Laurie in LITTLE WOMEN, and solid turns in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and VELVET GOLDMINE. This is Bale's first crack since EMPIRE at singlehandedly carrying a movie, and from the first minute we see him, his Welsh speech patterns completely submerged in a monotonal, crisp Americanized accent not unlike that of the equally creepy Hugo Weaving in THE MATRIX, he is riveting.

phonebooth.jpg - 161946 BytesBale has always had a peculiarly "dead," hooded look to his eyes that in my opinion detracts from his credibility as a romantic lead, but in this film he uses that to his advantage. Perfectly coiffed and dressed in expensive Valentino suits; exercised and polished to chiseled, sculpted perfection, he is the living embodiment of 1980's narcissism. Seeing an actor who made such a huge impression as a child play this psychopath is a bit like having watched a beloved nephew grow up and being horrified at what he's become. It's a masterful, breakout performance, one that had me thinking throughout the picture, "DiCaprio would have been just awful in this."

The supporting players are fine as well. Samantha Mathis plays against type as Bateman's drugged out partners in a loveless affair designed solely as part of his one-upmanship game. Jared Leto, the heatthrob from TV's erstwhile MY SO CALLED LIFE, is appropriately, gleefully avaricious as the unfortunate axe-murderee (and interestingly named) Paul Allen. Willem Dafoe, as the private investigator seemingly attempting to solve Allen's strange disappearance, steals every scene with one flash of his now-trademark malevolent grin. chloe.jpg - 41975 BytesChloë Sevigny, as Bateman's secretary Jean, perfectly embodies the 1980's Wall Street low-level employee in awe of her flashy boss. Jean's utter lack of guile provide Bateman's only moment, albeit a brief one, of humanity -- a fleeting glimpse into the internal torment of this monster of a man. The assortment of lookalike actors who portray Bateman's lookalike cohorts, are all effective, particularly Matt Ross as Luis Carruthers, the fish-out-of water closeted homosexual.

The only weak link in this stew of odious figures is the usually wonderful Reese Witherspoon as Bateman's alleged fiancee, Evelyn. Oh, Witherspoon's portrayal of a shallow social climber is competent enough, but I had the sense that Tracy Flick had walked in off the set of the final scenes of ELECTION. Witherspoon is a dynamic screen presence, but I have yet to see her be something other than some variation of the same character.

The production values in AMERICAN PSYCHO are as impeccable as Patrick Bateman's suits. Everything from the photography of food presentation to the hallucinatory feel of the violence, to the chillingly (and cut to suit the delicate sensibilities of the MPAA) filmed infamous "two prostitutes" scene, has an antiseptic quality that sits in stark contrast to the chaos in Bateman's mind. The effective use of music rounds out the mood, even if I question the wisdom of TWO movies so far this year prominently displaying Katrina and the Waves' Walking on Sunshine.

Ultimately, Bateman, unable to convince anyone of his monstrous deeds, sits in front of a door that displays a sign reading "This is not an exit." Fortunately for us, we are able to be entertained, albeit in a perverse way, by his torments, while still being able to go home. Bateman is unable to escape this hell of his own making.

- Jill Cozzi

Read Gabriel's review of AMERICAN PSYCHO

Review text copyright © 2000 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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