by Jason Morrison
American Psycho has nothing to do with American Beauty, just as American Beauty had nothing to do with American Pie. Which in turn had nothing to do with American History X or An American Tale.
None of these movies, in fact, have anything in common, except that the "American" in the title tells you right off that it's a satire and/or commentary on some aspect of U. S. culture. Except American Tale, I suppose, which was about a mouse.
But the fact remains: everyone and their brother is jumping to make movies exposing flaws in the American dream. They always have, really. But lately, it's like they have to hit you over the head with it-as if they're afraid the audience won't get it.
American Psycho is particularly guilty of this charge. A commentary on the unbridled greed of the 1980s, and by extension the unfeeling pursuit of wealth, success and image that has carried over well into the 90s, it doesn't waste time on subtlety. The main character, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), is a psychotic killer and a stockbroker. Get it? Author Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote the novel the movie's based on, might as well have just called him Norman Bates and gotten it over with.
But American Psycho is successful, though maybe not in the ways it was intended to be. Satirizing 80s stockbrokers seems almost quaint anymore, but Bateman's character is almost hypnotic. He sets about most tasks with a robot-like determination, converses with others with patronizing sarcasm so thick it's impossible for them to see, and talks about Phil Collins' new album like a cross between Casey Kasem and a faith healer to his victims before committing his most heinous acts. This film has a non-satirical humor to it that is almost sickening, but also hilarious.
The entire movie is told from Bateman's often paranoid and sometimes delusional point of view. As he tells the audience about his life, he explains matter-of-factly that he is not a person, but an impression, can feel no emotion except greed and disgust. He is the definition of success-high-paying job on Wall Street, immaculate apartment, well-connected fiancee and beautiful mistress, friends, drugs, and all the Huey Lewis and the News he can get. But he's sick and unfeeling, driven to kill gleefully. His daily preparation routine includes hundred of sit-ups and twenty different skin care products, but any flaw, and slight and he is thrown into agony.
Case in point: business cards. He has new business cards printed up only to be trumped by his colleague's more tasteful, more expensive ones. This is bad enough, but when two other associates put their cards on the table, topping each other in turn, he's almost unable to speak. One colleague mistakes him for someone else and displays a particular penchant for getting better restaurant reservations than him, and for that gets an ax to his head.
The movie's plot revolves around this murder in particular. When the victim's family hires detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), Bale begins to have the first signs of any kind of unhappiness about what he's done-not regret, but instead fear he'll be caught. Kimball is not Bateman's equal socially, but he's smart, and seems to know more than he's letting on. As Bateman attempts to tie up lose ends and continues killing, Kimball's infrequent visits become a source of a new kind of anxiety for Bateman. And as the rest of the film shows, Bateman does not deal well with anxiety.
Dafoe should have been in this movie much more. I haven't read the novel, so I'm not sure how true director Mary Harron's story is to the original, but where this film shines are the parts where Bateman is inhumanly comical and where Kimball throws Bateman off balance. Sadly, there just isn't enough of the latter part to go around.
Bale plays Bateman like a cross between Tom Cruise and Jim Carey. For a while it was rumored that Leonardo DiCaprio would be playing the murderer and it's fortunate Bale got the role instead. Not only would DiCaprio have brought too many associations with him into the film (look, the king of the world is killing women), but Bale provides a strange presence that ultimately helps the film a great deal. It's hard to imagine Leo giving such an uneven performance, but that's just what's necessary here. Bale is also incredibly comic. Not that he was doing an American Pie style performance, but he seems born for dark comedy.
I do know that the film, though the main character is misogynistic and cruel, is no where near as violent as the book. That's probably a good thing. American Psycho does not avoid gore, but it isn't gratuitous, either. If you're squeamish about that sort of thing, though, this will be hard for you to sit through.
Ultimately, Bateman descends so far into delusion that it's unclear if he even is a murderer. A final stab at satire occurs when he confesses and no one believes him-it's impossible that someone like him could do such a thing. But ultimately the satire misses its mark by about ten years. Luckily, the film has enough other strengths that it's not disappointing.
(Out of five)