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American Psycho

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: American Psycho

Starring: Christian Bale, Chloe Sevigny
Director: Mary Harron
Rated: R
RunTime: 97 Minutes
Release Date: April 2000
Genres: Comedy, Horror

*Also starring: Justin Theroux, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, Joshua Lucas, Guinevere Turner, Matt Ross, Reese Witherspoon, Willem Dafoe

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If the doctrinaire ayatollahs of the film industry in Iran ever get up the guts to allow their people to see movies that are not about children, "American Psycho" would fit their propaganda plans perfectly. What have the high priests of the Iranian government been saying over and over about the Great Satan? "America is so consumed by materialism that its people have lost all spiritual values." This is not an exceptionally new idea, nor one restricted only to regimes of extremist political energy. A case could indeed by made that almost any rich country is going to list shopping and consuming among its eminent pleasures, Sunday church- going aside. But in the hands of Mary Harron, who directs and co-scripted "American Psycho" based on one of the most controversial novels of the early nineties by Bret Easton Ellis, the theme gets a razor-sharp representation, its title character compensating for his inability to feel and his incapacity to express a personal identity by an uncontrollable urge to kill.

Harron and her co-writer, Guinevere Turner, have taken pivotal scenes from the book, furnishing a swift pace to the story of the psychotic Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). They capture novelist Ellis's response to the spirit of the 1980s in America, but particularly in the world's finance capital of New York, where thousands of people in their twenties and thirties made millions not by erecting buildings and bridges or inventing better mousetraps but simply by shuffling paper in the midtown offices of Manhattan's skyscrapers. Lest any in the audience think of the film as merely a period piece about a bygone era, think of today's wild stock market, with prices of stock--particularly of Internet companies that haven't turned a profit--soaring to surreal price-earnings ratios.

Director Harron lays out a coterie of nattily clad young men, vice presidents all in the Wall Street mergers and acquisitions department of a leading brokerage house. As we watch these vapid individuals get together several times a week at pricey restaurants for arugula salads, chateaubriands and Scotch, we wonder how they ever find the time to get their work done, the labor for which they are grossly overpaid. Look closely and you will not find a single moment of the movie describing what these people actually do, so busy are they in one-upping each other in tangible goods from exquisitely designed business cards to elegantly tailored suits. The almost unbelievable name dropping in the book is almost completely dispensed with, however. Still, Bateman's opening monologue will give those who have not perused the Viking book--scheduled for re-release in April--a good idea of the lengths to which the author goes to impress on the reader the importance of labels to the yuppies of the Reagan years. As Harron's photographer, Andrzej Sekula ("Pulp Fiction") follows Bateman to his morning shower, we hear the 27-year- old executive discuss his skin treatment with no one in particular, gesturing to an array of bottles in the bathroom of his Upper West Side apartment house that would tap the envy of the most gorgeous models in the city. We get an early hint that Bateman (whose name may have been inspired by the Bates Motel) is a deranged personality in that- -despite an array of beautiful women at his disposal--he watches sadistic porno movies on his TV as he performs his daily two-hour workout.

The scenario of these yuppies is so amusing that we're almost saddened when Harron cuts to Bateman's earliest victim, a homeless man whom he distracts by seeming to befriend him only to stab the poor, hungry and cold man several times in the stomach and chest before stomping his friendly terrier to death. The violence of the act is in no way comparable to the fury of the book's murder scenes. Take a look at the way Bateman describes the vicious attack on the seated, smelly beggar on the printed page...

"I put out a long, thin knife with a serrated edge and, being very careful not to kill him, push maybe half an inch of the blade into his right eye, flicking the handle up, instantly popping the retina...with my thumb and forefinger hold the other eye open and bring the knife up and push the tip of it into the socket, first breaking its protective film so the socket fills with blood, then slitting the eyeball open sideways, and he finally starts screaming once I slit his nose in two..."

Harron is determined, however, to avoid slasher-movie formula so that at no point do we witness a prolonged display of any of the man's twenty to forty killings. Slasher fans, however, will be reasonably amused by one of the book's pivotal scenes displayed in somewhat gory detail. Bateman picks up a street hooker, Christie (played with almost priceless facial expressions by Cara Seymour), takes her to his flashy pad, whereupon he phones an escort service for a more sophisticated young woman. (This is the scene that was later cut to give the movie an R rating. Bateman, in the midst of a sexual orgy, observes the action in his mirror as he flexes his muscles...we see the menage-a-troi in the mirror's reflection, which photographer Sekula films in blue as though Bateman were watching not himself with the prostitutes, but a disembodied porno video.) After arranging a second date with a reluctant Christie who, at this time joins a rich debutante (co-writer Guinevere Turner), Bateman dispatches the deb and then runs naked through the hallway chasing the panic-stricken Christie with a chain saw.

Much of the dark comedy throughout the movie comes from Bateman's observations which he expresses aloud to whoever is in the room with him--or to us in the audience if no one is present. An almost hilarious monologue has Bateman discussing the works of Whitney Houston as though he were a true connoissuer in a scene that Ellis and Harron might just have intended to be a riff on critics in general.

The one concept difficult to sort out is this...Bateman is shown as a Frankenstein monster, a man who cannot control his homicidal instincts, presumably because he was genetically deformed from birth. Yet we are tempted to make the stretch and try to interpret his endeavors as a reaction against the soul-stifling conformity of his business and social circle. His inability to feel, which is not a truly rare psychological state, does not come from his being part of a greedy, 1980s society. Greed and hostility are the only emotions he can feel, but this aberration would exist in him regardless of the spirit of the times.

Nonetheless, "American Psycho" is not a picture you'd want to miss. The scenarios are as cut to the bone as the victims of Bateman's chain saw, nicely edited by Andrew Marcus with thrills and humor alike pumped up by Barry Cole's original score. Christian Bale--who is said to have worked out just like his character for months before the shoot began and who has obviously had an effective speech trainer to give him an authentic preppy accent--is unbeatable in this role. The handsome Welsh performer apparently was chosen after Leonardo Di Caprio turned down the role (a fortunate decision for the movie). Jared Leto as Bateman's victimized friend Paul Allen gives new meaning to being axed from the cast, while Chloe Sevigny is absolutely charming as an alpha- male, idol-worshipping secretary who is thrilled to the core when invited on a date with her loco boss. Other performers include Reese Witherspoon in a silly, undeveloped role as Bateman's fiance and Willem Dafoe as a private investigator looking into the disappearance of Bateman's hatcheted friend.

Filmed in New York and Toronto, the movie has an impressively expensive look courtesy of Gideon Ponte's production design. The sparkling scenes of Manhattan by night should be welcomed by the New York Tourist Commission, providing a gleaming backdrop for what is justifiably the most talked-about movie of early 2000.

(C) 2000 Harvey Karten,

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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