This is probably the best way — perhaps the only way — to bring American Psycho to the screen. Find interested women (gender is key) to write and direct, excise the pruriently violent acts that made the book a scandal in the publishing world, and cast an absorbing but low-key talent in the title role (Leo DiCaprio was briefly interested, but something scared him away). The question is how to make a film that resembles American Psycho — but not too closely.
Here’s the trouble: a faithful adaptation of American Psycho would inspire mass walk-outs, maybe even riots. Publication of Bret Easton Ellis’s serial killer novel was famously delayed when Simon & Schuster reneged on its commitment to the book (and a $300,000 advance) amid howls of protest over its violence. We’re mainly talking explicit sexual torture, here, although the book makes the killer surprisingly egalitarian in his choice of victims, nicking everyone from his Wall Street colleagues to a little boy plucked from the crowd at a zoo. Before long, Knopf stepped in and agreed to publish the title as a paperback original. The book became a modest success — to date, some 400,000 copies are in print.
The crucial ingredient missing from the film is the book’s awesome repugnance — the sordid details of city life that crystallize the division of Manhattan’s upper and lower classes, and the brutal nausea that accompanies our every glimpse into the machinations of Patrick Bateman’s head. On the printed page, Bateman is a racist, misogynous sociopath with a noxious temper and an absurdly high opinion of himself. He’s also highly successful, and there’s the kernel of Ellis’s criticism — that American society values morals and decency so little that it won’t acknowledge the rot at the center of such vacuous privilege. (As in the book, conversation doesn’t even hit a bump when Bateman declares, in response to a question about what he does, that he’s into “murders and executions.”)
The novel was widely criticized as slick, pretentious, and/or boring; at The New York Times, one writer complained that it offered no insight into the criminal mind, as if that settled the matter. What most critics refused to attach any value to was the book’s status as a very black comedy. Outrageous visions of mayhem alternate pages with seemingly endless references to products and chic restaurants. The sickening first-person description of Bateman’s first murder — he knifes out a beggar’s eyeballs and then tosses a coin into the gooey mess left behind — is followed by his deadpan four-page digression on the music of Genesis, post-Peter Gabriel.
Bateman’s take on pop music does get some play in the film — he spins tunes and offers solipsistic critical commentary before having his way with a victim. It’s still pretty funny, but it puts a more broadly comic spin on the killings. More problematically, the references to cultural landmarks like Huey Lewis and the News underscore the fact that 10 long years have passed since the publication of the novel, rendering this new interpretation unavoidably stale. A more interesting approach may have been to update the story for the 90s — Wall Street has, after all, continued to make millionaires of sharp, self-absorbed young men. Giuliani’s crusade against New York smut could make for an interesting subtext, and there remains no shortage of empty pop icons for Bateman to revere.
Director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and her co-writer Guinevere Turner (1994’s scrappy lesbian cause célèbre Go Fish) have opted instead for a straight-ahead adaptation that retains the late 80s milieu, jettisons the clinical descriptions of sadism, and emphasizes the comedy. The results are mixed. I think it was a mistake to have Christian Bale play Bateman quite as goofy as he does, but it’s a terrific performance within its boundaries. There’s a dorky matter-of-factness to his demeanor that adds a shrill hysteria to scenes where he brandishes a stainless-steel axe, dashes around naked with a chainsaw held at crotch level, or crassly orders one of the hookers in his apartment to go down on the other. Easily the film’s highlight is a three-way sex scene absurdly set to Phil Collins’s lamentable hit “Sussudio,” with Bateman pumping away at one girl as he flexes and admires his rippling physique in a full-length mirror.
That terrific instance of narcissism had to be snipped by a few seconds to secure an R rating, and the U.S. will once again be given an edited version of a film that will play completely uncut in other territories. (What else is new?) The interesting thing is that the film’s highlights — both aesthetic and explicit — have nothing to do with the violence that made the book such a polarizing force. Rather, Harron softpedals the murders in favor of more telling character details. The scene with Bateman and his executive buddies comparing business cards is a hoot, and the one (an alteration from the book) where Bateman cuts short a romantic evening with his awkward secretary (Chloë Sevigny) because she “might get hurt” is strangely moving, with only Bateman really registering the ominous double entendre.
If a woman’s touch is evident anywhere, it’s in the attention paid to the other women in the story, all of whom are played by terrific actors. Fiancé Evelyn’s (Reese Witherspoon) inability to see the monster in Bateman’s heart is meant to be comic — she’s so eager to fulfill her social obligation to marry that she doesn’t even hear his confession. But there’s nothing funny about the plight of a prostitute Bateman calls “Christie” (Cara Seymour) who winds up in the hospital after he takes a coathanger to her. When Bateman’s limo pulls up next to her a second time, she initially refuses to go home with him — but eventually relents in exchange for a large wad of bills. The subtext is male power and the exploitation of women, and Harron makes the point incisively, with a minimum of fuss.
These individual scenes do add up to something meaningful, but the movie as a whole is lacking cohesion. Just as in the book, there’s an ambiguity to the proceedings that casts some doubt over how many of the events depicted actually take place, and how many of them are the feverish delusions of a raging, insecure Ed Gein wannabe. On the printed page, such questions lent necessary resonance to a brutal tale that began, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” and warned on its final page, “This is not an exit.” But with the story’s Grand Guignol underpinnings missing — as filmed, this stuff is about half as grisly as your typical Scream movie — the effect is more artsy than unsettling.
Also missing is a real sense of how deeply rooted Bateman’s murderous actions are. In the novel, they were a consequence of the hateful soullessness that manifested itself on every page. But in the movie, Bateman’s murders are the sole manifestation of his soullessness. If he weren’t a killer, he’d be a regrettable dork and nothing more. Much as I enjoyed some aspects of this treatise on male selfishness, the intervening decade has seen more unpleasant characters, like the guys from In the Company of Men, render this interpretation of American Psycho largely obsolete.