American Psycho


Year 2000

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman  
Justin Theroux as  Timothy Bryce
ChloŽ Sevigny   as Jean
Reese Witherspoon   as Evelyn Williams
Jared Leto as Paul Allen
Willem Dafoe as Donald Kimball
Matt Ross as Luis Carruthers
 
Director - Mary Harron
Screenwriters - Mary Harron
    Guinevere Turner
Novel -   Bret Easton Ellis

Lots of people seem to gush over American Psycho going so far as to call it a masterpiece. Others, less smitten, feel compelled to call add "flawed" as part of the acclaim. So, I watched it on cable the other night and felt the need to comment on it given its cult status. (Most of my comments are based on watching a movie on DVD.) For me, it's a torn and frayed effort.

Sometimes, I take paragraphs to summarize a movie. In this instance, I can do it in a half dozen words - a man fantasizes about murdering people.

Take one part Fight Club (the movie, not the book), one part "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (the short story, not the movie), one part Afro Samuri (the animated series), and one part American History X, place in blender and chew it up until it's textureless.

You see, I won't use the expression "flawed masterpiece" to describe American Psycho. I think that merely stating "flawed" is sufficient.

The movie, for starters, is uneven. Sometimes I think this is intentional. But at other times, this appears to showcase the weakness of the writers. Not having read the book, I don't know if this ineptitude can be blamed on the screenwriters or the novel author.

Here's an example. Early in the movie, Bateman (Bale) fantasizes about telling a female bartender, "I want to stab you to death and then play around with your blood." This is weak and uninspired. Maybe it was intentionally shallow. But unless you're a fifth grader, I'd think that you could come up with something a little more imaginative than boringly "stab you to death" and simply "play around with your blood". The choice of words is right up there with, "See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!" but less memorable except for their weakness at using imagination.

Even the only slightly more imaginative, "Plunge a knife repeatedly into your misshapen body and fingerpaint with your red ooze," would have been better. But, the writers didn't go that route. They went with simple dreary words that took any sense of malice out of the scene. I can't imagine Chuck Palaniuk, the author of Fight Club, or even James Uls, the screenwriter of Fight Club, being so lazy. This scene in American Psycho reminded me of Fight Club. The childish description was a gaffe.

This underachieving approach is prevalent throughout American Psycho. A lot of the dialog is first grade reader stuff. Let me take it one step further. Every scene has one item in it that does not fit. Every scene will include at least one, often more than one, aspect that makes it unbelievable. Every scene will have you saying, "That can't be right," at least once. Every scene.

Now, as the viewer, you are asked to determine which scene is real and which is imagined. When you can't believe any of the scenes, then you, the viewer, are in trouble attempting to follow the movie. I asked myself, "Was this flaw in every scene always intentional?" and the answer was, "Play around with your blood," i.e., no. Reach? Grasp?

The topic of the movie is anhedonia. Doing things because they are supposed to feel good rather than doing them because they are enjoyed. Like the narrator from Fight Club, Bateman is cocooned. Unlike the narrator from Fight Club, Bateman's reason for his insanity is that he's bored.

Who is Bateman, really? We never know. Oh, there's some sort of revelation at the end. But because there's something in the scene that is out of whack, even that revelation is suspect.

All we know about Bateman is that, in his words, "I simply am not there."

One last thing about the scene flaws. Once in a while in a movie, you can overlook incongruities. When they add to the movie, you can actually embrace them. But every movie, every story, needs a touchstone. There has to be a point of reference. It can be an event, a person, or an item. But it has to exist, otherwise you have no sense of direction. You wander aimlessly along with American Psycho.

The point of the movie, that Americans are consumed by consumerism, is poignant but not revelatory. We all know that the trappings of convenience become pursuits rather than tools of release. Self-centered accumulation of goods is not a guarantee of fulfillment. The idea that, "Money can't buy happiness," has been around for centuries. The movie just gives the pursuit of happiness via the pursuit of money a different twist.

The movie focuses on three aspects of Bateman's life: his preening, his job, and his homicidal releases. But, with three realms to explore, his preening is limited to working out, his job is only about business cards and restaurants, and his homicial releases are about killing random people. To be honest, this gets repetitive. Maybe it's intended to show why Bateman is crazy, but it's pretty vanilla.

That might seem a bit extreme considering some of the depraved acts associated with Bateman, but the whole thing gets old. Are all of the murders necessary to demonstrate Bateman's state of mind? Bateman is a dull person, so the homicidal releases aren't that exciting. There's no game in Bateman. See someone and kill him/her is his modus operandi. At one point he walks into a restaurant's lavatory, miraculously apports leather gloves, and gets ready to strangle someone. I'm not talking about torturing someone, but a little cat and mouse game, even, "Psst! Come over here and look down this flight of stairs," would've been more creative than, "I think I'll strangle him in the public bathroom in front of the urinal."

Bateman's wildest fantasies are pretty diluted. Even in his own fantasies, he somehow ends up losing every battle of wits. He wins in his murder fantasies, but they're also touch and go.

Back to the bathroom scene, why did Bateman want to strangle this person? Because his business cards looked nicer than Bateman's.

This is the uneveness of the movie. In one unbelievable scene, Bateman displays his new business cards to his peers in Mergers and Acquisitions. That Bateman has new cards isn't the incredible part. That everyone else has new cards just today and they're all better than Bateman's is what I don't buy. Then there's the level of knowledge of the business cards. The color, the type of font, and the inclusion of a watermark among the cards are all discussed in detail. Alright, I get this attention to detail aspect. Bateman is well versed in unimportant things that become priorities.

But there's a scene where he is entertaining and is offering wine. He simply calls it, "A very fine Chardonnay." There's less knowledge of wine than there is regarding business cards. Is this intentional? Does Bateman not know enough about wines other than to say one is very fine? I would've thought that he'd go on about the vintner. But then, maybe he doesn't know enough about wines to say more than that. Although I eventually gave the movie a pass on this one, it was just one more lump of coal in the stocking of American Psycho that took some rationalizing to accept.

So what's good about the movie? Well, the first fifteen or twenty minutes are great. It's nearly plagarized from Fight Club, but it's from a different point of view. Bateman's daily routine of waking, working out, and preening with masks is wonderfully detailed. Then he arrives at work and even that, at the beginning is good.

This great start is interesting and that alone will keep you from walking away. But, already something doesn't feel right. His morning ritual would take hours. A thousand stomach crunches every morning is good for nearly half an hour by itself. I'm assuming three hours every morning before he even leaves for work.

At work, Bateman doesn't seem to do anything. He has a featureless office and his sole role is to do nothing but watch television until the next meeting. I think that the television comes and goes as needed, so its existence is suspect.

What is Bateman's responsibility? To do nothing, I guess, because he's somehow related to the owner of the company.

The photography is nicely done. There are some great camera angles and scene composition that elevate this above B-movie status. Because that's all this is, a B-movie.

Some people think that Christian Bale is a good actor. For me, at least in 2000 when American Psycho came out, Bale is no better than Edward Norton or Keaneau Reeves. It doesn't help that his dialog is nearly gibberish or that he's intended to be dull. It does mean that range of emotion is not a qualification for the part of Bateman. Bale is a good looking guy who is in the buff on occassion, so there's eye candy for women.

If the movie had been a little tighter and a little less chaotic, the point would have been better made. For being a one trick pony of stating that just being wealthy does not ensure happiness, the movie goes on too long.

I could go on discussing the theme, but that would give away some plot points. What will have you watching, besides the cinematography, is the game you play of trying to determine what's real and what's from Bateman's imagination.

Final praise for the movie comes from the fact that it's not a typical movie. It falls into the same old, same old sometimes, but for the most part, it's a fresh take on things. I wouldn't say it's creative or revelatory. I would say that it's not cut from the same tired cloth that everything in Harpywood typically is. Still, I'd rather watch Fight Club or Lost Highway or even the silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for more creative takes on things.

There's nudity, some of which helps understand Bateman's pursuit of happiness, profanity, but less profanity than nudity, and blasphemy. It's not a chick flick since the fantasies are male. But yet, some of the fantasies are what women might think a guy's fantasies are rather than what a guy might really fantasize about. Ask a woman what a guy wants and that's a different list than directly asking a guy what he fantasizes about. I suspect that these feminine interpretations were added by the screenwriters.


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