American Psycho (2000)
Directed by Mary Harron
Cast: Christian Bale, Chloe Sevigny, Willem Dafoe, Cara Seymour, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Jared Leto, Matt Ross, Guinevere Turner, Justin Theroux, Bill Sage, Josh Lucas.
2000 100 minutes
Rated: (for violence, gore, nudity, sex, drug use, and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 15, 2000.
Are you, more or less, setting yourself up for disappointment if you go to see a film adaptation of one of the most powerfully written novels you can recall reading? At the time of its publication (after one publishing company dropped it at the last minute), Bret Easton Ellis' horrific 1991 satire was widely reviled by some critics for being an offensive exercise in misogyny towards women, a "how-to" book on slaughtering someone and getting away with it. They not only missed the boat, but the entire ocean with this conclusion. Having read Ellis' novel the week prior to seeing the controversial film version, what struck me was not only its gracefully flowing and mysteriously alluring writing style, told in first-person by the central character, but also its portrait of a man come unhinged, who "isn't really there," and has no answer for why he commits such heinous crimes except to say that it is close to a masturbatory experience for him. And, of course, the book offered a right-on-target satirical view of the '80s--full of conceited egos, wealth and power, and materialistic excess. In other words, Ellis may have been lightly poking fun, but there was a startling amount of truth in everything he wrote, right down to the minuscule details.
After several years of the film adaptation rights thrashing around from one studio and director to the next, "American Psycho" has finally surfaced on the big screen with, shock of all shocks, a female director, Mary Harron (1996's "I Shot Andy Warhol"), and a female collaborative screenwriting partner, Guinevere Turner. What we have here, however, is a motion picture that misses the mark in a way that the book critics did nearly a decade ago. While still attempting to be a satire, Harron has whittled down the book's casual product placement; violence; unforgettably self-absorbed, yet nuanced, characters; and its overall depth, to bring audiences a basic Cliffs Notes version of a masterful novel. In doing so, Harron has also altered a story supposed to be about a shallow era into a film that is, ultimately, just shallow.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a 27-year-old yuppie on Wall Street--overly wealthy; generically handsome (he looks much like the rest of his buff, chiseled colleagues); health conscious; womanizing; and only interested in "hardbodies" and getting reservations at the swankiest restaurants. What Patrick's coworkers and acquaintances don't know, though, is that he works out in his sterile, desolate apartment to the likes of pornos and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and casually murders anyone he feels like it--old friends, bums, prostitutes, working partners, you name it--while spouting off a vocal review on the merits of some of his most beloved singers and bands, including Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News.
Like the novel, "American Psycho" has no actual story, with a plot that moves from Point A to Point B and so on, but is a loose gathering of thoughts and moments set in the life--a rather pathetic one, at that--of Pat Bateman. A modicum of a story does arise after Paul Allen (Jared Leto), Patrick's coworker, is axed to death, and Detective Kimball (Willem Dafoe) shows up at Pat's job to question him about the unknown whereabouts of Paul.
One of the most compelling aspects of the novel was eventually realizing that Bateman is not a vile excuse for a human being, but simply an unstable man who, somewhere down the line of his life, has lost the ability to feel emotion, either for himself or those around him. It was a surprisingly poignant notion by Ellis, subtle, yet effective. The film attempts the same thing, but verges off-course in its conclusion to be something that almost begs you, in an overwrought fashion, to feel sympathy for this man.
Christian Bale has gotten a lot of publicity and early acclaim for his work as Patrick Bateman, and while he is playing a calculating character set on being physically perfect and financially sturdy, his performance remains cold and at a distance, speaking in a monotone voice that wears out its welcome right away. Bale is a fine actor, and he nails the adrenaline rush and childish excitement he gets on inflicting torture to others, but that is just about the only compliment he can be given.
All other characters are minor, as they are all merely players in Patrick's own little world. They are often so inconsequential onscreen, however, that they make no impact. Reese Witherspoon, as Patrick's equally self-absorbed fiancee, Evelyn, is especially wasted in comparison to the stature of the character in the book, with her role whittled down to a mere three brief scenes. Witherspoon is given no chance to create any sense of a character at all, and so she is forced to basically phone in her performance. The same goes for all of Patrick's friends (played by Bill Sage, Justin Theroux, Matt Ross, and Josh Lucas); his drug-addled lover, Courtney (Samantha Mathis); and Detective Kimball (Willem Dafoe).
The only two who come away unscathed, and with their full respect intact, are Chloe Sevigny, as Jean, Patrick's adoring secretary, and Cara Seymour, as Christie, a sad-eyed, ill-fated prostitute who makes the wrong decision when coming back to Patrick's apartment for a second rendezvous. Sevigny especially nails her character, the only likable one in the film, and adds a much-needed complexity to her scenes that is absent from the rest of the picture.
The soundtrack, filled to the brim with nostalgic '80s song, such as Phil Collins' "Sussudio" and Huey Lewis and the News' "Hip to Be Square," aids in capturing an era that, aside from the costumes and hairstyles, fails to be brought to life. Other credit must go to Andrzej Sekula's appropriately sparse cinematography, with an emphasis on space and the color white to stand for the emptiness in Patrick's heart. And the central murder setpiece, arriving approximately an hour into the film, is spectacularly suspenseful, a bravura piece of filmmaking reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's work in 1980's "The Shining." But what difference do these minor things make when the film at hand is an otherwise depressing, vacuous experience?
Thank goodness I read the book before seeing "American Psycho" because, while constantly being disappointed with the hack job director Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner have done with the source material, at least I could fill in the important blanks that the movie so mercifully leaves out. The novel notwithstanding, "American Psycho," the film, has nothing insightful to say about anything, not even the aforementioned subjects it attempts to satirize, while the dialogue comes off feeling stilted and annoying "written." By the time the twist ending kicks into gear in the final twenty minutes, most audience members will be left confused and feeling empty themselves, as what happens is nearly incomprehensible, with no attempt to bring reason or any answers to the proceedings. Although I don't want to do it, since film adaptations shouldn't fairly be compared to their written counterparts, it must be brought up once more. Having read the novel, it is impossible to watch "American Psycho" and not have your expectations tarnished, as the whole affair is an enormously large missed opportunity. Harron has taken nearly all that was great about Bret Easton Ellis' fine novel, stripped it of its dignity and profundity, and left it for the film-viewing world to behold as a sadly trivial, puerile, and, ultimately pointless, misfire.
©2000 by Dustin Putman