Combustible Celluloid
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With: Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Chloe Sevigny, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Guinevere Turner
Written by: Guinevere Turner, Mary Harron, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis
Directed by: Mary Harron
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, sexuality, drug use and language
Running Time: 103
Date: 01/21/2000

American Psycho (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Kill Factor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

American Psycho arrives complete with Sundance buzz and the usual "controversy" from the aging ninnies at the MPAA who were offended by something or other and went through the whole "edited down from NC-17 to achieve an R rating" charade. So I can't help but be a little disappointed with the actual movie. Even so, it's a highly entertaining movie with enough edgy humor to prickle our senses and make us glad to be alive.

American Psycho is based on a novel by hip cult writer Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero). In it, Christian Bale plays the title character, named Patrick Bateman. I had seen Bale when he began his career as a youngster in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987). Now, I couldn't have picked him out of a lineup. He's a completely different person with an etched face and a long, Basil Rathbone-like nose. He also affects a perfect bored-Harvard-upperclass accent as opposed to his natural English one. I doubt Leonardo DiCaprio, who was originally to play this role, would have brought the restraint or class that Bale brings to it.

When he's not killing, Bateman works as a... well, someone who makes a lot of money. He's never actually shown doing any work. Part of the reason the movie works so well is that it spends most of its time spoofing the world of greedy capitalists during the 1980s. Bateman and his interchangeable cronies spend their time eating at trendy restaurants (the kind where you have to BE somebody to even get in) and comparing business cards. In fact, Bateman looks like -- and is often mistaken for -- another of his co-workers and uses that to his advantage in committing one of his murders.

Bateman is seriously dating Reese Witherspoon and is having an affair with Samantha Mathis. People like Bateman are so empty that that's the natural thing to do. A person is not fulfilled unless he has both a steady and a secret girlfriend. (Not to mention that the secret girlfriend is a cocaine junkie.) Plus he occasionally dabbles in prostitutes. Bateman is also incredibly vain. At the movie's start, he explains his elaborate display of facial cremes and rinses and what he does to get ready for the day ("I can do 1000 stomach crunches," he boasts).

The murders are, of course, the main focus of the story. They are elaborately and shockingly performed and won't let down fans of horror films. The movie is directed by Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) who is more experienced at anti-mainstream movies than she is at horror films, but she adapts easily. It's a lot like a Sam Raimi (Evil Dead II) or a Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) film in that it smoothly moves from comedy to shocking horror and back again. There's one moment when Bateman chases a hooker with a chainsaw, stops to watch her run screaming down a spiral staircase, then drops the chainsaw down the center, hitting its target at the moment she reaches the landing.

The dialogue achieves the same kind of balance of the sinister and the humorous. (Harron wrote the screenplay with Guinevere Turner, who appears in the film and who co-wrote and starred in 1994's Go Fish.) One of the best lines has Bateman in a noisy bar with a few blonde bimbos. One asks him what he does for a living. He yells, "I'm into murders and executions." We're shocked for a moment, but the woman has heard his answer as "mergers and acquisitions."

The movie gets more bonus points for featuring four of my very favorite actresses, Witherspoon, Mathis, Turner, and Chloe Sevigny. Sevigny plays an uncharacteristically toned-down role as Bateman's secretary who puts up with his little whims but is sweet enough to survive. More credit goes to legendary producer Edward R. Pressman, who has spent his career working on truly independent films like Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), Brian De Palma's Sisters (1973), Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992), Alex Proyas' The Crow (1994), and James Toback's recent Black and White.

However, there's trouble in paradise. The movie takes the back way out and leaves us unsatisfied. I won't say exactly what happens, but Bateman's reality perception is left in question, and there's no redemption or conclusion of any kind. I like ambiguous and challenging endings, but a movie of this kind needs to leave us with something. Otherwise there's no point in making the thing at all.

But that's small potatoes compared to the wicked enjoyment I got from the rest of the picture. You'll have to bring along your sick sense of humor, and not the kind reserved for There's Something About Mary. I'm talking really sick (and you know who you are). And I dare you to go out for cheeseburgers afterward.

Note: It turns out that the changes between the director's cut and the theatrical cut are very minor, amounting to just a few seconds. It includes the shortening of one dirty word, plus a few seconds edited out of the "threesome" sequence.

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