"American Psycho," the long-overdue adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel about the unchecked greed and vanity of the go-go '80s, arrives in theaters with a checkered past and accompanied by a rather stale whiff of controversy.
Chock full of graphic descriptions of brutality and sex crimes, the tale of a wealthy Manhattan broker's murder spree was branded as pure misogyny in some literary quarters. Oliver Stone expressed initial interest in masterminding a big-screen version, and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly turned down a $20 million opportunity to play the title role. When the movie was finally made (with "I Shot Andy Warhol's" Mary Harron directing and co-writing, and Christian Bale in the place of DiCaprio), it was nearly slapped with an NC-17 rating, thanks to a scene that depicts a menage a trois between the lead character and two doomed prostitutes.
The final product may ultimately clarify the original intentions of Ellis, who had bathed his critique of crass consumerism and petty competition in blood. The explicit nature of the violence has now been toned down: For the most part, the camera spares us the gory details, allowing us to see only the preparations for the homicides and, in some cases, their gruesome aftermath.
We watch Wall Street striver Patrick Bateman (Bale) don a raincoat, do a little dance for joy and offer an extended, pseudointellectual analysis of Huey Lewis' "Hip to Be Square" as the tune blares away on the stereo. Moments later, Bateman takes his shiny ax to the noggin of Paul Allen (Jared Leto), a smarmy workplace rival. Inside the chamber of horrors that was once Paul's apartment, we catch a glimpse of the words "Die Yuppie Scum" scrawled in blood across one wall. Bateman is single-handedly wiping out everything that was bad about the '80s, including vapid hits like Genesis' "Sussudio" and Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All."
It's a funny notion, one that's smartly expanded on until the film peters out in a scattershot, harebrained conclusion. Harron knocks holes in the argument that the novel merely celebrated the testosterone-pumped hatred of women. She clearly mocks Bateman and his name-dropping, fashion-plate pals for their vanity and the absolute soullessness of their existence. When he isn't scrubbing and sculpting his body or digging for stock-market gold, the psychopath even stumbles into a little self-knowledge. "There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman," he says in a voice-over. "I simply am not there."
But the greed-is-good philosophy is so passé by now that it's hardly worth attacking. Yes, Harron draws a remarkable, frightening performance from Bale ("Velvet Goldmine"). And no, "American Psycho" isn't as grisly as your average slasher movie. Still, the idea of cramming one's mind with these unavoidably ugly images is about as appealing as spending even one minute with the guys at Bateman's office. Like the '80s themselves, I wouldn't go there again.