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The Boston Phoenix Ugly American?

"Psycho's" beauty is more than skin deep

By Peter Keough

APRIL 17, 2000:  To judge from the boos greeting screenings of the trailer at the Kendall Square Theatre, American Psycho will be the movie people loves to hate -- Cambridge feminists, Catholic League members, and everyone in between. That would be reason enough to suspect it'll be one of the important movies of the year, even if it weren't also an often brilliant, often sad, always brutally honest black comedy of morals.

The proscription of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho preceded the book's publication in 1991 (see Steve Mirarchi's interview, below). Ellis had acquired a reputation as one of a glib, callow breed of '80s authors who recorded the superficial materialism of their generation but offered no insights other than a tepid nihilism and smug sarcasm. In Psycho, that wan pose, with its sucking-up to status and its litany of designer labels, took on a gleefully misogynist, racist, elitist edge -- which, of course, was the point. But few were ready to grant Ellis the benefit of his Swiftian irony, especially after reading the book's notorious rat-in-the-cage episode.

That episode is omitted from Mary Harron's adaptation, which is far less graphic and offensive than your average Scream entry. Harron established herself as a connoisseur of outrage and absurdity in her underrated debut, I Shot Andy Warhol, and she creates a similar tone here in the opening credit sequence. A stark white screen is dabbed with sticky blobs of crimson. Blood? Raspberry sauce, more likely, garnishing a decadent entree at one of the chic Manhattan eateries patronized by the coked-up, twentysomething greedniks of the Reagan '80s. Among them is Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale, frenetic in what should be a breakthrough performance), who introduces himself in voiceover as an "idea of a Patrick Bateman, but there is no real me," a person with no human emotions, "only greed and disgust."

Okay, so having these words intoned while Patrick is reflected in a mirror peeling off a cosmetic mask might be adding one layer of meaninglessness too many. But for the most part Harron translates to cinema Ellis's collage of anomie and atrocity, of interior derangement and surface sterility, with dazzling wit and economy. Her achievement is never more apparent than in the murder scenes. Infuriated when a colleague, Paul Allen (Jared Leto, hilarious in identical haircut and eyewear as Patrick's Mini-Me), flashes a nearly identical business card with a trace more quality than his own ("My God! It's even got a watermark"), Patrick invites him to his apartment.

Paul barely registers suspicion when he notices pages of the Times' Sunday Styles section neatly taped around his armchair, or when Patrick segues, ax in hand, into an Entertainment Weekly-worthy analysis of the career of Huey Lewis, whose "Hip To Be Square" plays in the background. Hilarious and exhilarating, the scene combines two disparate elements of the original book with an ingenuity that transcends the source. At the very least, it's a provocative alternative to the role of pop music in High Fidelity.

And of course it's derivative of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, though in the era of deconstruction, Patrick, unlike Alex, reviews the music instead of singing along with it. But there are other differences as well. The mask of slapstick in Orange doesn't conceal much in the way of a soul; in Psycho, however, despite Patrick's protests of having nothing inside, an inescapable sense of torment abides -- these voiceovers, after all, are interior monologues. There is also a lingering doubt, present in the novel and underscored in the film, as to whether any of the crimes take place at all -- they may all, or most of them, be in his head.

The other people in Patrick's life are no more helpful in providing an objective perspective. Fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon) chatters on about their relationship while he sketches his most recent homicide on a tablecloth. His secretary, Jean (Chloë Sevigny), is besotted with him and doesn't notice the nail gun pointed to her head. A detective (Willem Dafoe) frustrates his attempt to put together an alibi, then provides it for him. And Patrick's scheme of assuming other identities when indulging in his abominations proves redundant; everybody thinks he's somebody else anyway.

There is the occasional knowing gaze. The worn prostitute Patrick calls "Christie" (Cara Seymour) sees through him, and so does Patrick himself -- no matter how he tries to wriggle out of it, he has a conscience. "This confession," he insists at the end, "means nothing." As the "This Is Not an Exit Sign" above his head implies, though, the insanity plea won't get him off this time.


Psycho-babble

My senior honors thesis at Penn State was almost rejected because it dealt exclusively with American Psycho. Without even reading it, the committee had decided that Bret Easton Ellis's book was sex-ridden trash and unworthy of an honors treatment.

Such has been the ignorance surrounding the novel. Few books generate sufficient controversy to cause their publishers to recall them. For American Psycho, the situation was worse: Simon & Schuster, which had paid Ellis a $300,00 advance, refused to publish it. Vintage quickly bought the rights, and in 1991 it issued the first edition in softcover. That same day a women's-rights group opened a toll-free hotline so callers could listen to the goriest sections of the novel followed by the members' impassioned pleas to boycott it.

The film has inherited this controversy despite director Mary Harron's public announcement that the novel's infamous acts of sadism would take place offscreen. The troubles extended to the production itself. At first it was Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman and Mary Harron directing. Then Leonardo Di Caprio bumped Bale and Harron quit in protest. Oliver Stone replaced Harron but walked when Di Caprio bailed out because he thought the role would damage his image. Then it was back to square one with Bale and Harron.

Ellis admits his own initial feelings about Bale didn't help matters. "I initially thought Bale was a bad choice; I was reluctant. Mary was going to have to cut $4 million out of the budget if she wasn't going to cast a major star. And I thought, Bale? He's Welsh! And wasn't he that kid in that Spielberg movie?"

Indeed, Bale was that kid in Empire of the Sun. But when Ellis met the actor face to face, he found himself shrinking in his seat envisioning Christian as Patrick. "He is big! Big and menacing!"

And funny. At the press screening I attended, there were a lot of laughs and no screams. Like the novel, whose 400 pages serve up only 10 pages of graphic violence, the film is hilarious. Ellis saw it for the first time just the day before our conversation, and he was relieved. "For me the book was never about violence; that's not its preoccupation. I've always thought of the book as a criticism of male behavior, a very black comedy about that culture. The real psychopathological part of it is more cultural, and it's more unsettling because of the expectations of a culture that could create a Patrick Bateman. That's what the film clarifies."

Those willing to give the film a chance will be treated to the more comic incidents in the novel, as when Bateman and his co-workers one-up each other by flashing business cards. Harron films the scene with cards that look essentially the same (a notion you don't get from the novel), encouraging you to recognize the characters as the empty surfaces they are.

"I think it makes it funnier that the cards are the same," Ellis comments. "It's a competitiveness about style with these guys. It's about showing yourself off through a business card, by what suit you wear, by what you order at the restaurant, by whatever your cultural preferences are."

The film does, of course, depict Patrick's psychotic rage, and with material so difficult, some moviegoers won't be able to see American Psycho for the romping satire that it is. But Ellis, who had nothing to do with the script, finally decided that people can think what they want. "You know what?" he says in a moment of Batemanesque nihilism. "Ultimately I don't care. Did I just say that? No, really, it's being created by a team of individuals who are readapting this to another medium. I have no stake in this, and I have no interest in what other people say about the movie." -- Steve Mirarchi


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