Obsession for Men
by Karen Moline and Ray Pride
THE SETUP: Petulant, bored twenty-seven-year-old investment banker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a paragon of 1980s vacuity — he's impeccably groomed and engaged to a woman (Reese Witherspoon) who's as label-obsessed as he is. Bateman fills his nights dining at slick restaurants, consuming status dishes of the hour with his equally social-climbing colleagues and lovers. But Bateman is as aware as the audience that "there is no real me," a tough morsel of self-knowledge that drives him into nothing short of a murderous fury.
KAREN: Based on Bret Easton Ellis' 1990 novel — which was dumped by its original publisher, for it's a smorgasbord of misogynistic slashings — American Psycho is a film project finessed, surprisingly, by two women: Mary Harron, who directed I Shot Andy Warhol, co-wrote it with Guinevere Turner, writer and co-star of the lesbian romance Go Fish. The most significant change in their adaptation is that they've toned the violence down from a roar to a low hum. In fact, the entire American Psycho experience has been refashioned as a satire of late 1980s conspicuous consumption.
RAY: Harron and Turner have tuned into something timely: male rage, the feminization of male beauty and the relationship between those two things. The connection might seem tenuous (how angry can a guy get contemplating his own reflection?), but those issues got some serious attention when Susan Faludi theorized about them in Stiffed earlier this year.
KAREN: I didn't really buy Faludi's theory that men have been emasculated by their own objectification — but that didn't stop me from appreciating Harron's deliberately delicious objectification of the male body, which still struck me as anomalous in its extremes. The movie's got lots of great shots of the super-studly Bale in the power shower, soaping and scrubbing with his water-activated gel cleanser and his honey-almond body scrub. It may have been an obvious metaphor when he painstakingly removed his mint peel-off mask, but it worked for me visually. Just looking at how cleanly that man's been body-waxed, you can't help but feel his pain.
RAY: I blame Calvin Klein: Didn't it all start with Mark Wahlberg packing a pistol in his snow-white briefs in those Times Square billboards? Anyway, his character may be ineffectual, but Christian Bale is a truly talented actor with commendable musculature — it must have taken hours a day for weeks on end to create.
KAREN: You're coming off envious, Ray. Take a few hours out of your busy life and commodify yourself!
RAY: No, thanks. When Bateman looks in the mirror, you get the feeling he sees a stranger staring out of an advertisement.
KAREN: Precisely my problem with this movie: you never get to know more about Patrick Bateman than that he's a human black hole. None of the characters has anything remotely interesting to say; they're only capable of amassing more filthy lucre. So what matters to these Greed-Is-Good guys is being seen and acknowledged for their money. It's an ode to the spending sprees of the late 1980s — which somehow becomes a dead ringer for the late 1990s and all the nouveau-riche dot-com piglets hogging the good tables — but there's no substance to any of it. Everyone knows money can't make you happy — it turns out it can't even make you interesting.
RAY: It's one of those terrible ironies — can you make a story about ennui that doesn't lurch toward the yawnsome?
KAREN: Evidently not. Most of Bateman's rage is acted out upon women, but it's not clear why, as we've no hint of what formed him — there's none of the dense psychology that made Silence of the Lambs a far more engaging serial killer story. And although I like to look at the uber-buff Bale just fine, there's nothing terribly sexy about this movie, least of all the violence, which was no doubt a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers. There are no loving caresses of a gun, there's no romantic hero unbuckling his sword before a swooning damsel. The violence in the film, if anything, is played for laughs, as in the scene that shows the contents of Bateman's kitchen drawers and cabinets, all his shiny silver knives and tools arrayed in perfect, anal order.
RAY: Or when the audience hears a woman's howls of terror and concludes it's another victim . . . only to discover instead that it's the soundtrack to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the music Patrick's chosen to accompany a power workout.
KAREN: I don't think they were just trying to lighten the mood, either. It makes sense to me that they would use humor as a way of containing and declawing the violence that's all over the mostly vile and boring novel they chose to adapt. What's the easiest way for a woman to put a man in his place? Laugh at him when he thinks he's being virile.
RAY: But there's plenty that's plain old violent here — for example, when he pulls a coat hanger out of his dresser drawer for use on an unsuspecting prostitute. The filmmakers never actually specify the damage in that scene, which is even creepier — we're set up for what he is going to do the sweet, wide-eyed prostitute, but we never know exactly what kind of torture he's inflicted.
KAREN: While Bateman's stalking predator exudes physical danger, he is too blankly self-absorbed to exude any sexual danger (which would have at least been provocative, given many of our fantasies). But for Bateman, there's nothing but perfunctory fucking. His true pleasure lies in gazing upon his grimacing features in the mirror while screwing two hookers. He can only come when one of the hookers waves hello to him in the mirror — confirmation that his beloved reflection has been noted.
RAY: That's the scene that got the film an NC-17 rating at first — Bateman watching his reflection thrust away, flicking his hair this way and that, while Phil Collin's oleaginous "Sussudio" goops up the scene.
KAREN: What, the censors were shocked and appalled that sex-for-hire can be joyless and manipulative?
RAY: If they were going to be shocked, you'd think it would have been the scene of him in a murderous rage sprinting down the hall of a posh Fifth Avenue apartment building after a bloodied prostitute, clad only in running shoes and a rhythmically roaring chainsaw poking from his midsection.
KAREN: That picture may get a big guffaw, but there can never be anything remotely funny about a panic-stricken woman running for her life. Plus I was wondering how he got past the doorman in the first place. Once you're thinking thoughts like that, the movie has lost you.
RAY: And what do we get after that? Bateman discovers that he needs to be needed. Then the movie suggests everything we've seen might have been a fantasy. A little amuse guele before life begins.
KAREN: It's about as sophisticated as the Oh-Bobby-it's-just-a-dream episode of Dallas. What do you get when you cover a whole lot of nothing with a glossy surface?
RAY: A movie that makes you want to clean your pores as soon as you leave the theater.