January 10, 2014

American Psycho

Have you ever thought about the fact that Norman Bates was actually a pretty likable character? Aside from the grisly truth of what Bates was doing with his nights, Alfred Hitchcock managed to make him endearing for much of the film. (Well, Anthony Perkins, the actor who played him, deserves a lot of the credit, thanks to his boyish face and the way he makes Bates charmingly awkward.) We feel bad that he has to live with that crotchety mother of his, running that depressing motel, wasting away like a hermit. And then, when we find out the truth, we feel bad that Norman Bates was raised under decidedly horrible circumstances. This doesn't mitigate his crimes or his guilt, but it certainly humanizes him.

Now prepare yourself for a movie that is extravagant in its desire to dehumanize its main character (it seems unfitting to call him a protagonist) and alienate its audience in the process. American Psycho (2000) is about a sociopathic yuppie who gets his jollies killing people. It's from a novel by Brad Easton Ellis, and his heavy ideas weigh the movie down with nothing to relieve them from their own stifling self-importance. The script was written by the director, Mary Harron, and Guinevere Turner. So one of these three is to blame for the line, "They don't have a good bathroom to do coke in." It happens early in the film: four Wall Street businessmen are sitting at some fancy schmancy restaurant that serves unappetizing yet pretentious-sounding food that only the rich could afford to eat and pretend to enjoy. Then another member of their pack returns to the table and says it: "They don't have a good bathroom to do coke in."

My problem with the line was this: He reports his findings as though he were doing a commercial, perhaps telling a friend--and the viewer--that "this new cream really rejuvenates your saggy skin." He should have said something more vague, if we're trying to be realistic. You may think I'm splitting hairs, but actually this little bit of detail underscores a much bigger problem in American Psycho. The line is meant for shock value, realism or good writing be damned. It's part of an overarching--and failed-- attempt to satirize the 1980s and all those alpha-male, coke-snorting frat boys-turned executives, who whip out business cards and compare them to see whose is the nicest. I wonder: are the business cards a euphemism for anything? This is one line of dialogue in a script that feels incredibly contrived, as though the writers were saying, "are you getting how cleverly we're satirizing yuppie culture? We're trying to make it as obvious as possible."

Aside from some beautiful shots of New York City, American Psycho lacks any sense of elegance. And yet it's made with skillful good taste: the lavish yet sterile apartment of Christian Bale is lavish and sterile in a calculated way: it's all designed in order to bring out the blood stains that frequently cover his floors and his bed sheets. The overly familiar 80s music that layers the film (Phil Collins, Robert Palmer, Huey Lewis and the News) reminds us--as if we needed it--that this movie very specifically wants to capture the insanity of that decade. But I see no evidence that the movie has anything deeper or more authentic or interesting going on in it than the most banal, expensive yuppie films that actually came out of the 80s. Like The Wolf of Wall Street, American Psycho may be secretly in love with the things it wants to critique. (Although I'm not sure how secretive this love affair really is.)

The film drifts along with humorless precision, as bad as many a David Cronenberg movie, and the whole time I yearned for some Brian De Palma. The difference between American Psycho and any number of De Palma's ridiculous thrillers is manifold: With De Palma we get some kind of freakish, manic, titillating, tricky joke. All of his movies between Sisters and Blow Out captured this feeling to one degree or another (even if not all of them were entirely good or successful). You see a Brian De Palma thriller and you're blissfully aware that you're at a movie directed by someone who wants to show you a good time. You see American Psycho and you feel the deadening pulse of a bad sermon.

Christian Bale obviously got himself in impeccable shape to play the character of Patrick Bateman. Bale is of course famous for "becoming" his characters. There's no denying that the man has talent. But I'm convinced more than ever that he is an overrated actor. He seems hellbent on playing characters that require basically the same kind of performance: one comprised entirely of alternations between very serious scowls and a sunken-faced deadpan expression. (It's what made the Batman movies such enormous box office hits.) I guess we've stopped expecting anything more from our "serious" leading men. They're certainly not going to be accused of having fun or letting us have fun. Bale aficionados can look forward to seeing his chiseled body, but are you okay with it being covered in blood? Are you okay with Christian Bale running through the halls of his high-rise apartment building naked with a chainsaw? (I know...It's the universal good time.) His performances often feel overly perfected and somehow never alive.

Some will likely argue that the point of American Psycho is to show the heart of not-aliveness. The problem is that a corporate thriller without any life in it starts to feel like a corporate snuff movie, and even if there weren't scenes of Christian Bale's house of horrors (bodies in closets propped up like trophies, and various other horrors) and his bizarre sexual trysts and his deviant inner-thoughts and psychotic dream journal, we'd still have the film's snuff-like devotion to 80s corporate greed. If the makers of American Psycho wanted to make a movie that is believably about a sociopath, they have done it. (Is there anything weirder than the way Patrick Bateman talks about music? As if he were reading the reviews of albums?) But they haven't given us any reason to care one bit.

With Willem Defoe, Josh Lewis, Reese Witherspoon, Chloe Sevigny, Justin Theroux, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, and Matt Ross.

No comments: