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The Banal 'American'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2000


    'American Psycho' Christian Bale slices and dices but fails to make a deep impression. (Lions Gate)
When Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) mentions – oh so casually – that he does "murders and executions," a listener mistakes his words for "mergers and acquisitions."

That's the blood-simple thesis of "American Psycho," a stylized, black comedy set amid the back-stabbing, profit-hunting towers of Manhattan in the 1980s: Murders and mergers, executions and acquisitions? They're all the same thing, see.

In director Mary Harron's adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, Patrick, a junior master of the universe, with his own office, personal secretary, sinfully fat salary and a verbal shtick that suggests Jim Carrey as a three-piece-suited Satan, simply can't help killing people.

But the slaughter is anything but metaphoric, judging by the mounting body count. The targets are young women, mostly. After inviting them to his fancy penthouse pad, Patrick kills their senses slowly with bad music, Huey Lewis perhaps. Then he literally murders them, reaching for an axe, chainsaw, knife or whatever he deems necessary.

And yet, he returns to the office the next day and functions perfectly. But lately, he has become worried. The emotions he feels – primarily greed and disgust – threaten to engulf him.

"I think my mask of sanity is about to slip," he confesses to the audience.

There is another threat to his bizarre status quo: Detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe), who has begun investigating the disappearance of one of Patrick's victims, a work associate (Jared Leto) he has recently slaughtered and bagged.

"Psycho" has more than a few passing similarities to Stanley Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange." Bateman, dressed in the height of Manhattan fashion, is a yuppie, upscale version of "Clockwork's" Alex the Droog.

Like Alex, Patrick attacks victims unthinkably, and he involves the viewer in his grotesque horseplay with whimsical narration. Like Alex, he even kills a homeless person for no reason except disgust.

Violence as an extended metaphor for something deeper was certainly fresh in 1962 when Anthony Burgess published "A Clockwork Orange."

It still seemed new when Kubrick made the 1971 movie version.

But Harron, who wrote the script with Guinevere Turner, has smoothed Ellis's sick-puppy writings into something of a slick black comedy. There's nothing beyond the bloodshed and gallows humor, just intellectually secondhand implications about materialism, conformity and misogyny. (Slicing and dicing women is bad, dude. Whoa! Did you see the way her head came off?)

Bale, the young Welsh actor who broke into the movies as the child-hero of Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," displays inexhaustible energy in the role. He loses weight right in front of you, sweating himself into an ever-shriller frenzy. But it's hard to summon up enthusiasm for a performance so rooted in bloody banality. I mean, as Patrick, Bale's most emotionally pressing dilemma is: Chainsaw or butcher knife?

AMERICAN PSYCHO (R, 100 minutes) – Contains sickening violence and dismemberment, graphic obscenity and sex scenes.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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