With American Psycho, director Mary Harron has done something that's been done before but rarely against such great odds: She's turned a bad book into a good movie. Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 success de scandale was bad in just about all the ways that matter--offensive and boring. But Harron and co-scriptwriter Guinevere Turner (who also has a small part as one of Bateman's victims) have given the book a complete overhaul, not to mention a plot. Gone is the wretched excess of brand names and menu items. (The little that's left has a satiric snap as opposed to a pornographic languor.) And gone are what I'd call the worst offenses against women: sexual-mutilation scenes that caused Simon & Schuster to drop the book three months before publication. Don't get me wrong, Bateman still employs an entire tool shed of murder weapons, but most of it now occurs offscreen.
Ellis seemed to be after a kind of Warholian stupor in which the reader's boredom reflected Bateman's moral vacancy, which in turn reflected the spiritual emptiness of the materialistic '80s. About the book's endless product-cataloging, Ellis told Rolling Stone, "Either you find it so numbing you skip it, which I don't think is a bad thing to do, or you find it funny." I skipped it, which I didn't think was a bad thing to do but only because the book had succumbed to the imitative fallacy: It was as brutally blank and blankly brutal as its Wall Street protagonist. The wonderful thing that Harron has done is move the book away from Warhol and toward Jonathan Swift. Unlike the book, the movie actually registers on us as satire. Call it a modest proposal--that in the dog-eat-dog world of mergers and acquisitions ("murders and executions," as Bateman calls it), guys just kill to get ahead.
Bateman kills for various reasons, not all of them entirely clear to us, but the thread running through it all is status. The movie has a hilarious running gag involving business cards, which Bateman and his friends are always pulling out and comparing. (If ever a cigar weren't just a cigar, this would be the time.) The joke is that the cards look almost exactly alike, except the color of this one is bone and the color of that one is eggshell. Oh, and this one has a watermark, a feature that sends Bateman into a silent but deadly rage. An insane orgy of conspicuous consumption, American Psycho is American Gigolo plus Psycho, but the movies it most resembles are Wall Street and Bonfire of the Vanities, both of which it surpasses in the trenchancy of its anti-capitalist analysis. Greed is good? Greed is for wimps. You have to know how to spend the money--on the exact right nail gun, for instance.
How do you fill in the blank? That's the challenge in playing someone like Patrick Bateman, and although Christian Bale wouldn't have been my first choice (James Spader, anyone?), he pulls things out of himself that I didn't know were there, and he's polished his body to a high sheen. Bateman is like a radio stuck on Scan, constantly changing frequencies and never quite on anybody else's wavelength. How you nail that and yet hold the character together is beyond me, and Bale doesn't always succeed, but when he does we're given a portrait of a man without qualities--Homo invisibilis. The final irony of American Psycho is that Bateman, having worked so hard at embodying the '80s version of the Organization Man, doesn't stick out enough to become a suspect in all the murders he's committed. You've seen one homicidal maniac in a custom-made suit by Cerruti, I guess, you've seen them all.