AMERICAN PSYCHO

Directed by Mary Harron

Written by Harron and Guinevere Turner, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis

With Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Reese Witherspoon, Jared Leto and Chloe Sevigny

Distributed by Lions Gate Entertainment

**1/2



AMERICAN PSYCHO belongs to the ranks of mediocre films with great openings. As it begins, the credits roll: black letters against a white background. Alongside them, blood drips, and a knife soon  appears. Eventually we see the object of the knife's assault.  A helpless pastry is about to get carved into the kind of expensive nouvelle cuisine desert that undoubtedly looks better than it tastes. The "blood" is actually its sauce. This intro establishes two key ground rules for AMERICAN PSYCHO: 1) things aren't always what they seem, and 2)humor and horror are next-door neighbors. A high-concept movie if there ever was one, it's based around one idea: sociopathic serial killer protagonist Patrick Bateman (Bale) as a symbol for America in the 80s. (Just in case we don't get it, Harron includes a Ronald Reagan speech  in the final scene.) Unfortunately, it has only one other  equally inspired moment: a hilarious meeting in which Bateman and colleagues sit around comparing the sizes and textures of their business cards. (Can you guess  the subtext?) After that point, the film doesn't have much to add, becoming content to repeat itself glibly. As Bateman's anxiety and guilt mount, its tone varies, but  without matching these two scenes'  wit and economy.

Although Harron's first feature, I SHOT ANDY WARHOL, didn't show much distinctive directorial style, she's taken a large step towards establishing her own voice. The Manhattan  of AMERICAN PSYCHO - which was actually shot in Toronto - isn't stylized to the point of resembling the sets of EYES WIDE SHUT, but it seems to represent a psychological space as much as a real one. Harron organizes her frames geometrically around Bateman, often using windows and artwork to create boundaries and subdivisions within the frame. Each set looks like porn for Martha Stewart devotees. (The pristine white walls of Bateman's apartment just beg to be splattered.) The film's staging of violence in slick, bright surroundings is a little reminiscent of Dario Argento's 1982 slasher movie TENEBRAE, but Harron's vision of New York has already been bettered by Lodge Kerrigan's CLAIRE DOLAN. Although the two films' worlds are so close that one can easily imagine Bateman picking up Kerrigan's prostitute heroine,  CLAIRE DOLAN constructs a far more imaginative one: a completely cold and mechanized city, worthy of J. G. Ballard, in which everyone seems in danger of becoming absorbed by the metal surrounding them.

Without having read Bret Easton Ellis'  novel,  I don't know if the charges of misogyny raised against it are justified, but Harron and Turner have taken pains to keep the film from turning into a non-stop procession of violence against women. While there's a fair amount of gore on view, Harron shows far less  of it than filmmakers like  Argento or Wes Craven  would. (Judging from the blood-stained sheet Bateman brings to the laundry before killing anyone onscreen, his killings started before the film, and he seems to have a great many more victims than the ones we see him kill.) Instead, Harron and Turner's screenplay emphasizes black comedy. Unfortunately, they repeat the same ironic juxtapositions to death: Bateman will precede a murder with a mind-bogglingly vapid discussion of the genius of Huey Lewis & the News, Whitney Houston and Phil Collins or say something like "I'm really looking for a meaningful relationship" while holding a nail gun inches away from a potential victim's head. With repetition, the joke becomes neither funny nor disturbing, but the film seems mightily impressed with its own  cleverness in coming up with such material. Only once - during a scene in which Bateman chases a prostitute through his apartment building, chainsaw in hand - does it really become terrifying.

Had AMERICAN PSYCHO been adapted right after its publication in 1991, its transfer from page to screen might have gone more smoothly. The passage of time has taken some of its bite away. Nine years later, it's become a period piece full of quaint, amusingly dated accouterments and pop culture references. Bateman's oddball homages to the worst 80s pop music would have more impact if they were updated: while Whitney Houston continues to reach new depths of blandness, Huey Lewis has resided in the "where are they now?" file for ages. (Even so, he was upset enough by the film's use of "Hip To Be Square" to demand its removal from the soundtrack album.) In the second half of BOOGIE NIGHTS, Paul Thomas Anderson indulged this kind of kitsch connoiseurship much more amusingly and gratingly.

As well as CLAIRE DOLAN, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and FIGHT CLUB have offered far more complex dissections of the effects of capitalism on the American psyche. The key difference between those two films and AMERICAN PSYCHO is  their ability to implicate the viewer in the patterns of male cruelty they show, suggesting that one doesn't need to be a sociopath - indeed, one can have good intentions - to perpetuate it. By contrast, it's all too easy to write Bateman off as a freak. Edward Norton's performance in FIGHT CLUB emphasized his Everyman qualities, making even his most bizarre behavior a little more believable, while Bale's equally skillful work here lies in presenting a guy who's nothing but a smirking surface and seething unconscious. To its credit, AMERICAN PSYCHO does try to indict the entire culture that Bateman belongs to -  a milieu so conformist that he's constantly being confused with his co-workers, who sport identical hairstyles, clothes and physiques - but it avoids delving deeply enough into it to present a larger view, unless dialogue consisting largely of lists of restaurants counts. When Bateman  cries out for help loudly and frequently by making frank statements like "I like dissecting women. I'm completely insane." everyone ignores him or thinks he's joking.

In the end, they may be right. AMERICAN PSYCHO strongly suggests that Bateman may just be a geek with an overactive violent imagination. However, this territory too has been covered better:  in Dennis Cooper's   FRISK, a 1991 novel about a serial killer wanna-be.   (For that matter, Cooper's CLOSER strikes me as a better-written and more nuanced look at the world of LESS THAN ZERO, the only Ellis novel I've read.) No matter what Armond White thinks, a Swiftian satire on the heartless materialism of yuppie culture hasn't lost its relevance: if anything,  the cruelty of Giuliani's New York makes the 80s look like an era of benevolent socialism. But the great film about it remains to be made, and AMERICAN PSYCHO sure isn't it.