Author Bret Easton Ellis is probably best known for his novels depicting the vapid excesses of the Eighties, namely "Less Than Zero" and "The Rules of Attraction". However, in 1991, he made an indelible mark in the literary world with "American Psycho", a novel that satirized the insanity of the 'me-me-me' decade through the perspective of a serial killer. While some critics lauded "American Psycho" for its daring portrayal of life in soulless corporations, Ellis' tome was mostly reviled by the masses, particularly for its graphic (and often misogynistic) depiction of violence.
In the eight years since the book's release, the film rights have made their way through Hollywood, passing from one director to the next. At one point, director Oliver Stone ("Any Given Sunday") and actor Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Beach") were attached, but then backed out amid the swirl of negative publicity. The project ultimately landed in the hands of sophomore director Mary Harron ("I Shot Andy Warhol"), who took Ellis' controversial tome and re-worked it with her co-scripter Guinevere Turner ("Go Fish") to heighten the satirical angle of the story. Unfortunately, even though Harron and Turner have made their film somewhat more interesting than the repetitive and pornographic prose of the source material, "American Psycho" still remains at heart a hardly-profound cataloging of mildly interesting bits of Eighties corporate culture without the benefit of an overall purpose.
Like the novel, the story is told from the perspective of 27 year old Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale of "Velvet Goldmine"), a successful but despicable "Wall Street" type who works in mergers and acquisitions, who feels nothing but contempt for the people around him. In addition to wearing the most expensive suits, eating at the best restaurants, snorting coke, and maliciously tearing into anyone standing in his way, Bateman is subject to murderous impulses, which end up claiming several lives throughout the film. And though Bateman knows that what he does is wrong, he finds himself unable to control his urges, which quickly escalate into grander and more elaborate killings.
Unfortunately, the people around him are too self-absorbed to notice his erratic behavior, even when he blatantly confesses to his crimes. His shallow fiancee (Reese Witherspoon of "Election") is too wrapped up in trying to make wedding plans, his pill-popping mistress (Samantha Mathis of "Broken Arrow") is too stoned to care, while his docile secretary (Chloe Sevigny of "The Last Days of Disco") is too enamoured with his wealthy trimmings to see the monster underneath. Even within his close circle of amoral alpha-males, Bateman's fellow vice presidents are more concerned about getting dinner reservations at the best restaurants or fawning over the texture of their business cards. Furthermore, Bateman is often mistaken for someone else, which is used to his own advantage.
Similar to the themes espoused in the recent "Boiler Room" and 1997's "In the Company of Men", Harron's take on Bateman is that he is the unwitting victim of male vanity that has been marginalized by the dehumanizing aspects of corporate culture. Throughout the film, we are shown manifestations of Bateman's insecurities as he desperately tries to fit in-- his rigorous workout routine, his daily ritual of facial cleansers and moisturizers, his disappointment when a colleague's business cards are more impressive than his, and his never-ending need to feel superior to the people around him, whether it be through attitudes on politics, opinions on music, or the ability to secure dinner reservations at a top restaurant. Thus, Harron implies that Bateman's sickness is a direct result of a dog-eat-dog corporate culture, where a competitive atmosphere fosters feelings of contempt and moral ambivalence. After all, the only difference between Bateman and his co-workers is how they destroy lives-- he with an axe and his fellow vice presidents with the stroke of a pen.
Unfortunately, other than this statement on the evils of corporate culture, there is little else of interest in "American Psycho". Other than Sevigny's character, the players in "American Pscyho" are an unsympathetic bunch. And though Bale plays Bateman with the requisite amount of emotional detachment and superficial excess befitting of his character, the cold and flat portrayal, especially of such a loathsome protagonist, lacks the punch to really allow emotional investment on the part of the audience. There are numerous other films that have successfully satirized Reagonomics-gone-awry without losing sight of the importance of telling an interesting story with interesting people-- "Robocop", "Wall Street", and "They Live" come to mind. In "American Psycho", there is little to hold your interest once you understand the analogy that has been constructed. Furthermore, the film's bleak resolution, other than a twist that calls into question what Bateman has actually done, is similar to Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse", with the protagonist surrendering to the insanity around them. While some critics may applaud such a move, it doesn't make for good (let alone entertaining) storytelling.
Finally, there has also been much controversy over the graphic content of "American Psycho"-- this is not a film for the faint of heart. In fact, the film was originally going to be slapped with the 'kiss of death' MPAA rating of NC-17 unless certain cuts were made. Despite the director's public statements otherwise, the cuts were made to bring "American Psycho" down to an 'R' rating. Interestingly enough, it was the film's sexual content that was pared down, leaving the gory violence intact. It seems that Trey Parker and Matt Stone weren't too far off the mark in "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut" when they parodied the MPAA as a bastion of graphic violence, as long as there is no sex or dirty words.
"American Psycho" will probably be one of the more controversial releases of 2000, mainly due to its source material, even though the sex and violence has been toned down considerably. But source material issues aside, audiences will either love or loathe "American Psycho". On the one hand, it universalizes its serial killer protagonist as a product of a system fueled by greed and rampant consumerism, yet on the other hand, it is a cold and emotionless film that fails to reach any sort of payoff. Certainly not your average date movie.