American Psycho

American Psycho tips its hand very early on when the camera pans across a table that’s laden with posh dinnerware and exotic dishes. It doesn’t matter what the setting is, the meaning of this shot is always the same, and the point couldn’t be hammered home any harder if The Beatles’ "Little Piggies" was heard blaring over the soundtrack. American Psycho is another paste-up indictment of materialism, and worse yet, it’s built on ideas and connections that felt naive and incomplete even at the time they were conceived. It’s a block of stale cheese.

Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, the picture is set among the mousse-slicked profiteers who ran amok in the late 1980s. (Some time machine: it takes us all the way back to yesterday.) Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a colossus within the merger and acquisition firm he works for, and his life is overflowing with the accoutrements of yuppie success – the appliances and wardrobe and such relatively new goodies as CDs and mobile phones. He and his buddies are sitting on top of the world: their lives mostly consist of scoring reservations in New York’s swanky restaurants, where they keep their eyes peeled for the Trumps.

But although Bateman is surrounded by people, he’s alone in the world, lost (in his head) in a sea of bad pop music, skin care products, and the other detritus of modern life. He’s become such an outer shell of a man that his coworkers even mistake him for other people. Worst of all, his values have turned him into a monster. His obsessions – with his body, with status, with things – have made him dangerous to anyone who threatens his peace of mind. Even a colleague’s tony business card can push him into a murderous rage.

Ellis’ novel caused an uproar when it was published because it described Bateman’s killing spree with sadistic gusto, at a level of detail that the mind normally refuses to contemplate. Director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and her co-writer, Guinevere Turner, have defanged the book by turning the murders into cartoon killings that almost certainly occur only in Bateman’s head. Gone are the tortures and suffering that punctuated the book, and absent too is most of the material that many readers construed as thinly disguised misogyny. This Patrick Bateman is an equal-gender murderer, and the single onscreen killing of a woman – seen in long shot – is played as a parody.

Harron hits a couple of bull’s eyes, as when one of Bateman’s victims drunkenly surveys a living room that’s been draped in tarps and newspaper – he looks like a cow trying to make sense out of a slaughterhouse. And the moment when Bateman pays off two prostitutes as they leave his apartment is the most chilling one in the movie: the muted accusation in their faces is tinged with groggy wonder at the horrors he’s inflicted on them.

But the movie doesn’t have any outlook on Bateman beyond the notion that he’s a product of his environment, and having him do stomach crunches in front of a TV that’s showing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre simply isn’t the wicked idea that Harron thinks it is. Before dispatching his victims, Bateman lulls them off guard with faux critical dissections of the era’s pop musicians, but whatever you feel about "Susudio," it’s hard to picture Phil Collins as Muse to a psychopath. When Bateman’s colleagues jeer at President Reagan for dodging responsibility in the Iran-Contra scandal, it’s plain that the movie has only a skin-deep appreciation of its own time period – in real life these guys would have applauded Reagan’s duplicity. And while Ronald Reagan did as much as anyone to create the shark-eat-shark mentality of the ’80s, American Psycho’s equation of his doublethink with the craziness inside Bateman’s head is exactly the kind of tar-brush tactic for which Reagan himself was famous.

These promiscuous cultural references peak out in a long and shapeless spoof of slasher flicks, but the movie’s nuttiest decision occurs immediately afterwards when it switches course and asks us to empathize with Bateman’s anguish – that is, to take him seriously. Just when American Psycho should be whirling off into some hard, dark place, it goes all soft and lumpy. It’s no surprise, though, that it can’t find fresh ground to plow, for Harron brings to her work all the personality of Mr. Spock. You check off each of her decisions – the dehumanized interiors, the glittering surfaces, the gaping dead space around the characters – and think, "Yeah, that’s just what I expected."

Bale enunciates his syllables like a ferocious young John Houseman, and he strikes a lot of arms-akimbo poses in his absurdly buffed body and Nino Cerruti suits. It’s a flamboyant performance, but it’s also a humorless, monotonous one, and by the end of the picture you’re dying for him to do something startling. Reese Witherspoon is dismally miscast as Bateman’s fiancee, while Willem Dafoe, as a detective who pops in and out to provide a simulacrum of suspense, smiles his way through a nothing part. The movie does best in the hands of Chloe Sevigny, as a secretary who harbors a crush on Bateman, and Cara Seymour, as a streetwalker whom he terrorizes. Both women give harrowing, immediate performances – they rattle the movie’s over-prepared surface.

One suspects that American Psycho would love to implicate everyone in its grimy vision, but that it knows how laughable it would be to smear us all as closet murderers just because we visit tanning salons or own high-definition TVs. So it’s fuzzy around the edges, and it pretends that Bateman is an emblematic case even though the defining characteristic of the ’80s-era yuppie was his utter lack of remorse. American Psycho would make a fine bookend with last year’s Fight Club: both movies use cultural artifacts and mayhem to make facile comments on the perils of capitalism, and both let their central ideas dissolve in a solipsistic haze. American Psycho has all the trappings of a thoughtful film except profundity – it’s a swimming pool without a deep end.

– Tom Block