Although it wowed many mainstream critics, this lukewarm ‘00 adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ infamous novel is in fact a dreary and affected slog. Unlike the novel, the film is never particularly shocking or transgressive; it’s pretty boring, in fact, turning one of the meanest books of all time into a limp would-be comedy of manners.
Brett Easton Ellis’ AMERICAN PSYCHO was and is one of the most hotly debated books ever: it was bounced by its original publisher after outraged feminists groups leaked many of its most gruesome passages to the press, and received almost uniformly negative reviews when it finally hit bookstores in early 1991. It tells the story of Patrick Bateman, an upwardly mobile New Yorker who spends his days at his high powered job where, in Ellis’ words, he “makes enormous amounts of money for doing basically nothing”. Bateman’s nights are occupied with extremely graphically described bouts of sex and murder; his preferred victims are bums and prostitutes, whom he dispatches in nearly every imaginable manner, and nor is he averse to molesting or cannibalizing the corpses.
Several film adaptations were initiated over the years, to be directed by the likes of Stuart Gordon, David Cronenberg and Oliver Stone. Indie mainstay Mary Harron ended up with the chore (having already helmed I SHOT ANDY WARHOL, and gearing up for ‘05’s THE NOTORIOUS BETTY PAGE), shepherding a cast of B-listers like Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Josh Lucas, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, Chloe Sevigny and a pre-stardom Reese Witherspoon. Tonally Harron went the dark comedy route, playing down the book’s sex and violence considerably (although the MPAA threatened an NC-17 rating) while emphasizing Ellis’ social satire in arty and irritating fashion. Does her approach work? In a word: NO!
Wall Street yuppie Patrick Bateman is a good-looking, muscular and extremely well connected young man who appears to have it all: a trendy NYC apartment, a good looking trophy girlfriend, a comely mistress, several well placed buddies who share many of the same traits he does (shallowness being the standout) and a job that doesn’t appear to require much actual work. Bateman does, however, lack one crucial attribute: a personality. What he has in its place is a psychic void he attempts to fill by immersing himself in the trendy yuppie lifestyle of his contemporaries and, at night, killing and dismembering bums and prostitutes.
But Bateman’s day and night lives are beginning to blur. He chops up a co-worker after the latter embarrasses Patrick by unveiling a business card classier than his own, which inspires an unwanted police investigation. Later Bateman tries to fire a nail gun into the head of a fragile young secretary, but finds he can’t go through with the deed. He also embarks on a shooting spree, gunning down a nosy old woman, his workplace security guard and several cops…but does he really? By the end it seems Bateman has gone completely ‘round the bend, no longer able to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
It’s a bad idea comparing this film with its source material, as there’s really no comparison to be made: the book is tough, unsparing and nasty, about as harsh a piece of satire as any you’ll ever come across, while the film is shallow and lightweight, making do with just a few killings, none of them very graphic. And forget about the novel’s notorious sex scenes: the movie contains a few of those, but all—even the notorious three-person gang bang that got the MPAA worked up (and is included verbatim on the DVD)—are over before you know it. No wonder critics claiming to dislike the book were kind to the film.
The only problem is one really needs to have read the book to fully understand the film. Prospective viewers unfamiliar with the text will be puzzled by the protagonist’s penchant for in depth-dissertations of his favorite bands, not realizing they were taken nearly verbatim from the book, where his attitudes were presented in a more coherent fashion. Bateman’s constant refrain “I’ve got to return some videos” will likewise be incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t read the book (wherein video rentals are a large part of the character’s existence), as we never see him rent or return any videos. For that matter, the deliberately meandering and uneventful narrative is lifted directly from that of the novel, where it made a lot more sense, being a first-person memoir by a not-always reliable narrator.
Christian Bale, it must be said, is quite good in the title role precisely because he doesn’t try and turn Bateman into a tormented anti-hero. The same can’t be said for the filmmakers: they’ve taken an unabashedly racist sociopath and made him into a kinda mean guy (the N-word, a favored epithet in the novel, is never uttered once in the movie) who kills people, but not too many or in too gruesome a fashion, and anyway might not have “actually” committed any murders. If you like your serial killer flicks watered-down and pretentious than this film will satisfy, but those wanting some meat with their sauce should steer clear.
Lions Gate Films
Director: Mary Harron
Producers: Edward R. Pressman, Chris Hanley, Christian Halsey-Solomon, Ernie Barbarash, Clifford Streit, Rob Weiss
Screenplay: Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner
(Based on a novel by Brett Easton Ellis)
Cinematography: Andrzej Sekula
Editing: Andrew Marcus
Cast: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Josh Lucas, Samantha Mathis, Matt Ross, Bill Sage, Chloe Sevigny, Cara Seymour, Justin Theroux, Guinevere Turner, Reese Witherspoon