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"AMERICAN PSYCHO"
(2000) (Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: A slick but shallow 1980s era investment banker finds that he can't control his hidden homicidal thoughts and tendencies.
PLOT:
Patrick Bateman (CHRISTIAN BALE) is a slick but shallow investment banker during the greedy Wall Street days of the 1980s. Spending his days trying to one-up his competitive associates, including Paul Allen (JARED LETO), Timothy Bryce (JUSTIN THEROUX), Luis Carruthers (MATT ROSS) and Craig McDermott (JOSH LUCAS), Bateman is a man obsessed with being fit, trendy and getting into the best restaurants, while chastising his associates for being politically incorrect.

By night, however, Bateman is a different man. Although he's engaged to Evelyn Williams (REESE WITHERSPOON), he has no qualms about cheating on her with her best friend, Courtney Rawlinson (SAMANTHA MATHIS) or picking up hookers off the street, such as Christie (CARA SEYMOUR), and engaging in threesomes with other women, including his friend Elizabeth (GUINEVERE TURNER).

Beyond Bateman's sexual escapades, however, he also seems to be a serial killer. After dispatching one of his associates, he draws the attention of local detective Donald Kimball (WILLEM DAFOE) who begins investing the victim's disappearance. With Kimball seemingly becomes more suspicious of Bateman, the banker's homicidal tendencies, which eventually threaten women including Christie and even his personal work assistant, Jean (CHLOE SEVIGNY), begin to get out of control as he spirals downward into rages of paranoia and more murder.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
We've heard it all before about certain people who make it big in the news headlines and evening news: "He was quiet and pretty much kept to himself," "He seemed normal enough to me" and "I had a gut feeling there was something different about him." No, we're not talking about Internet entrepreneurs or teen pop idols, but instead about serial killers.

Except for a few wackos living out in the woods, they're almost always the guy living next door. In fact, one has to wonder who might be the next one, the person whose cart you accidentally bump in the grocery store, the guy you pass on the street, or the person living right next door with the odd hobby of collecting freezers and old butcher gear.

They could look like any average Joe, or heck, even like a movie star such as Leonardo DiCaprio. Of course, we're not saying that Mr. DiCaprio is such a person or that he had anything to do with that big ship going down (although I suppose that would be a serial killer's dream). No, for a while Leo contemplated starring in the cinematic adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial novel, "American Psycho."

For whatever reasons, DiCaprio pulled out from the vehicle and left the filmmakers not only with an extra twenty million dollars to spare, but the need once again to fill the central role. What he did do, however, was bring some brief attention to this picture that's going to need all the help it can get. That's due to the high probability that many viewers won't look past the superficial perversities to see something a bit more profound lying underneath.

As directed by Mary Harron ("I Shot Any Warhol"), who's adapted Ellis novel with Guinevere Turner (who briefly appears as one of the killer's apparent victims), the film is certain to raise the ire of some viewers who will certainly see it as anti-women, what with the misogynistic talk, manipulative sex and, of course, the murders.

Yet, in reality, the filmmakers' intent - while clearly not of the hit you over the head approach - is to chastise and ridicule the competitive, alpha male of the highflying, 1980's Wall Street era. Part satire, part farce, the film epitomizes such men and their nature by the creation of Patrick Bateman, presumably named after the "granddaddy" of cinematic serial killers, Norman Bates (of "Psycho" fame), a point that's accentuated by John Cale's ("I Shot Andy Warhol," "Something Wild") score that's reminiscent of what Bernard Herrmann did in Hitchcock's film.

Beyond that possible "in" joke/reference, the film also seemingly plays with the audiences' belief that what they see may, in fact, not be real. From the clever and deceptive opening - where what looks like blood splattering and then dripping onto a white background turns out to be a red culinary sauce being decoratively applied to a dinner plate - to other moments and a conclusion that gives one the impression that not everything is as was suspected, Harron toys with the audience.

While the ending isn't of the "knock your socks off" variety as was the case with "The Sixth Sense," it does tie up loose ends and explains not only the "truth," but also the incongruities and apparent problems that seemingly pop up along the way, especially during the third act.

Although that's a clever approach to filmmaking and often makes one appreciate - or at least understand - the film better the second time around, if it's not handled properly and perfectly, such an "it will make sense by the end" method of storytelling runs the risk of alienating the viewer.

That's because what appear to be improbabilities, odd character behavior and motivation, and overall logistical problems often have the effect of removing the viewer from the proceedings if they stand out as incongruous. No matter how weird, wacky or far out a story may seem, it still operates by a certain set of rules in its own little universe, and when they're broken, the audience will automatically know or at least sense that something's amiss or out of place. The same problem existed in David Cronenberg's virtual reality film, "eXistenZ," where the overall effect was similarly diminished by what initially appeared to be diversionary errors that were later explained.

Another problem lies in the way in which the central character is ultimately portrayed. As played with mighty gusto by actor Christian Bale ("The Portrait of a Lady," the main kid from "Empire of the Sun"), the slick character is fascinating to watch at first.

Falling somewhere between the faceless and personality deprived killers of the "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" films and that of Hannibal Lecter from "The Silence of the Lambs," you start to get an impression of what this character's all about. With a healthy dose of Gordon Gekko from "Wall Street" thrown in, along with a vocal delivery that comes across as a mixture of Rod Serling of "The Twilight Zone" and Jim Carrey at his most dramatically exaggerated moments, the character becomes even more fascinating.

Detailing his daily "beauty" and fitness regimen, competing against his associates about whom has the best business card, and extolling the history, virtues and overall musical quality of various acts from the 1980s, Bateman is an initially compelling character and walking contradiction. Despite his successful and confident demeanor and appearance, he has this nasty habit of killing people. Or so it seems.

Yet, with no back-story or exposition to explain any aspect of his behavior (beyond us assuming the go-go attitudes and competitive pressures of the "me" decade being the culprit), the character and subsequently the film end up just spinning their wheels. Sure, his character becomes more deranged and paranoid as the story progresses, but our interest in him doesn't accelerate with his madness. In fact, by then the viewer isn't likely to be that interested any more nor scared of him as a "monster."

That said, Bale does a credible job of creating a slick and shallow character, although he is limited as to what he can do with the creation due to those purposefully built in superficial characteristics. The supporting performances are okay, but they're even more limited in possibilities than the lead.

Willem Dafoe ("eXistenZ," "The English Patient") is pretty much wasted in the role of an ineffective police detective, while the various actors playing Bateman's associates inhabit characters that are just as shallow and nearly indistinguishable from one another. Meanwhile, Chloe Sevigny ("Boys Don't Cry," "The Last Days of Disco"), Cara Seymour ("You've Got Mail") and Reese Witherspoon ("Election," "Pleasantville") credibly play their varied roles, but similarly can't do much with their barely developed and certainly passively drawn characters.

While the film has a highly stylized look -- thanks to cinematographer Andrzej Sekula ("Pulp Fiction," "Reservoir Dogs") -- and even comes across as somewhat entertaining in a morbid/black comedy fashion, the fact that it ends up just repeating itself without much development and then seemingly suffers from the aforementioned incongruity problems, means it never really amounts to much.

Those looking for an exploration of what makes an American psycho tick are bound to be disappointed, as are those looking for a good scary film. Although it's probably better than it would have been had DiCaprio stayed aboard (he just doesn't seem right for the role upon seeing what the filmmakers had in mind), and it may seem better upon subsequent viewings, the film ultimately becomes a victim of its own design.

Despite an initially intriguing premise in plot, character design and teasing storytelling technique, the film ultimately fails to hold one's interest and comes off as neither scary nor humorous enough to excel in either of those approaches. As such, "American Psycho" may find a small number of supporters who thrive on controversy, but as an overall film, it only ends up being a mediocre experience. We rate it as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 31, 2000 / Posted April 14, 2000


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