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Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? 

Ask any well-heeled American psycho

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
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Hating the rich is a distinctly un-American pastime. Starved for aristocracy, schooled to aspire up and away from the middle class, Americans have traditionally admired wealth -- especially if it’s hard-earned from the bottom up -- too much to keep a proper resentment on the boil, as most self-respecting Europeans do. Until the 1980s, that is, when pip-squeaks in their 20s, many of them with enough inherited dough to support a gilded early retirement, started making millions of their own overnight without discernible effort. With the usual encouragement from the media, this has drawn upon the baby stock-market wizards a potently toxic brew of public resentment and envy.

If novelist Bret Easton Ellis is to be trusted, our fear and loathing are more than fully justified. At an age not all that far removed from pip-squeak himself, Ellis has made it his business to rub our noses in the unprepossessing lives of the young and filthy rich. His first novel, Less Than Zero, skewered the Beverly Hills bratoisie, overdosing its way to self-destruction on booze, drugs and sex. American Psycho, a portrait of a young Manhattan corporate monster amped on cocaine, rage and vicious misogyny, raised a ruckus, notably among feminists freaked by the book‘s images of graphic violence and sexual torture of women.

You can hardly blame them. Even the most avid defender of violent representation would blanch at the copious drawing and quartering in Ellis’ novel, most of which is inflicted on women. Ellis offers us a legitimate look into a diseased mind fronting for a diseased culture, but one wishes he were enjoying himself less. The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization of Women, which tried to block the publication of American Psycho, will likely draw no comfort from the fact that the book has been adapted for the screen by two women. As it happens, director Mary Harron and her co-writer, Guinevere Turner, have appropriated the novel for feminism, but with a wickedly dark spin that‘s unlikely to put a spring in the step of those who oppose screen violence, period. Harron has a thing for black comedy, traditionally a male preserve: Her last film, I Shot Andy Warhol, applied a capriciously gruesome deadpan to the story of Valerie Solanas’ attempt to assassinate the ‘60s pop artist. Yet both that film and American Psycho should also be read as a serious inquiry into the politics and aesthetics of violence.

It couldn’t have been easy to wrestle down Ellis‘ hefty 400-page tome for the screen. Though the book is poker-facedly funny and often wise about the folkways of a particularly repulsive youth culture, it makes for a dreary, repetitive read precisely because it describes in microscopic detail the dreary, repetitive lives of a youthful elite as unimaginative and cold-hearted as they are overprivileged. Pared down and resurrected as a crisply stylized three-parter, American Psycho is at once a sharp satire and an earnest study in the deadly consequences of moral vacancy, an ambiguity that played its part in the movie’s rocky road to completion. As it turns out, Leonardo DiCaprio‘s storied pullout from the lead role cleared the way for Christian Bale to turn around a capable but hitherto placid career in his role as Patrick Bateman, a rapidly unraveling high roller who’s topping off the fortune he was born to with a fortune he makes by twiddling his thumbs in a Wall Street office as bare and unfurnished as the inside of his own head.

The movie begins as an exultantly malicious anthropology of ‘80s Manhattan in all its banal excess. Bateman is less a character than an emblem of his time and place: Buffed, exfoliated and pomaded, he makes the rounds of Manhattan dinner parties, chic restaurants of the kind that serve swordfish meatloaf, and bars that look like outtakes from the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut. Bale, who’s shot in a fascistically sharp light that pointedly contrasts with the flat affect of his universe, must have pumped iron for months. With his jutting jaw, slicked-back hair and pecs of steel, complemented by a cruel slit of a mouth, the Welsh actor looks every inch the American alpha male. Outwardly Bateman is a carbon copy of the dumb, arrogant, immaculately turned-out friends he hangs out with -- boorish wiseacres who spend their time trashing women, gays, blacks, Jews and the poor, snorting coke, one-upping each other with posh ivory business cards and scoring reservations at the latest eateries.

Yet as even his quietly chipper fiancee, Evelyn (a contained Reese Witherspoon), senses, Bateman is a dufus, a faceless man who‘s constantly being mistaken for somebody else and dissed behind his back. By his own admission, delivered in a flat voice-over, he’s a nowhere man but for one small detail: His late nights are spent on a rampage of murder and mayhem through the streets of New York, wreaking havoc on the poor and the weak before he turns his rage on his peers. In Ellis‘ novel, the brutality and ugly sex come at you page after enervating page, counterposed with a calculatedly monotonous litany of designer name-dropping; intended or not, the effect is to put the reader into precisely the desensitized trance that Bateman is trying to escape. Cloaking his world in a hyperrealist light so sharp you could cut yourself on it, Harron keeps the violence minimal, over the top and ghoulishly funny. Wrapped in a raincoat to avoid unnecessary mess, Bateman butchers an acquaintance who’s a more assured version of himself and turns the dead man‘s apartment into a morgue for what’s left of his other victims, only to find himself pestered by a weaselly detective (Willem Dafoe, acting with his teeth as usual and doing a more than passable Columbo).

The scene is played for laughs, and though it‘s done with skillful elan, Harron is skating on thin ice. Stylized violence is a gambit so hellishly overused post--Reservoir Dogs, it’s come to signify not much more than a genre-savvy director goofing around being creepy. It comes almost as a relief when the tone shifts into grimly unsettling realism as Bateman turns his attention to his specialty: the sexual torture of any woman he can lay hands on, from low-rent hooker to college friend. His adoring secretary (Chloe Sevigny, hysterically demure), an ingenue who‘s unlucky enough to have never heard of Ted Bundy, is as much fair game as the suspicious prostitute (beautifully played by British actress Cara Seymour) he lures into a limo with the promise of big bucks. Though most of the violence takes place offscreen, the horror of these scenes feels authentic. Bateman’s abuse of women holds up a terrifying mirror to the male world he lives in, a world in which women are casually referred to (with approval) as ”hardbodies,“ or (with scorn) as ”cunts“ or ”bitches.“

Just as our laughter subsides into genuine fear, Harron switches gears yet again. Bateman‘s lust for blood accelerates in direct proportion to his frantic consumption of designer goods. As he falls slowly, surely apart, the movie takes a turn for the surreal, raising doubts about whether his foul misdeeds actually took place, or were the products of a sick imagination. Harron clearly relishes the ambiguity -- American Psycho can be read either as the story of the impotent, raving fantasy life of an ineffectual man, or as a monster movie, a fable of power run amok at the end of a century notable for the abuse of power. In the end, the movie, like the novel, leans toward the latter. As Bateman, a man of his time, slouches in a bar with the usual suspects, a television flickers with images of Reagan genially my-fellow-Americaning the crowd at George Bush’s inauguration. ”He looks so normal, so out of it,“ a young buck idly remarks. ”So . . . undangerous“

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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