Literary Brat Packer Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial 1991 tome — arguably one of the most-loathed and least-read novels in recent memory — undergoes a rather startling transformation via second-time feature helmer Mary Harron’s razored adaptation. She and co-scenarist Guinevere Turner have liberally reframed Ellis’ book as a satire of conspicuous consumption and moral bankruptcy amid the giddy excesses of High Reaganomics — something Ellis may have been attempting in the first place, but which his shallow, repetitious techniques (mostly endless product-naming) rendered superfluous. At the very least, Harron’s “Psycho” reps an impressive reclaiming of dubious material. Still, some carry-over elements will ensure the film’s own controversial reception, while arthouse auds’ queasiness with respect to serial killers, gore and misogyny — ironic or otherwise — will make this a marketing challenge for distrib Lions Gate.
Production won some unasked-for notoriety last year when Leonardo DiCaprio briefly looked set to star in it as his first post- “Titanic” vehicle. This move would have unceremoniously cut out the already contracted Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”) and topliner Christian Bale. Whether due to bad press or good manners, DiCaprio abruptly disavowed interest, leaving project to regroup as originally planned (albeit without the hefty budget increase his involvement would have secured).
Ellis’ protag remains the quintessential “soulless yuppie” Patrick Bateman (as in Bates Motel, presumably), a Trump-worshipping, coke-snorting, insider-trading, cash-hemorrhaging monster of materialistic vacuity. His opening monologue cheerfully enumerates the steps in his daily skin exfoliation routine. Patrick has no body fat — how could he, given thousands of daily ab crunches performed while “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or anal-rape videos enliven his formidably off-white Upper West Side apartment?
With his past erased to an even greater extent than in the novel, Bateman is a chillingly amoral blank slate for whom emotions register only when he does “bad things” — and even then he’s not so sure that his actions are real rather than delusional. (Offering discomfited viewers some faint out, Harron heightens the possibility that Patrick may indeed be unhinged yet harmless — as suggested by the remarkable lack of gore, police attention and suspicious neighbors his ill-contained mayhem engenders.)
An unstable temperament first gets pushed over the line when co-worker Paul Allen (Jared Leto) brandishes a business card ever so much more elegant than Patrick’s. Paul is promptly dispatched via ax, then, through Patrick’s contrivance, supposedly travels to London in a cover-up that at least halfway convinces police detective Donald Kimball (Willem Dafoe) — or does it? Next, a street prostitute (Cara Seymour) barely escapes intact, then is lured again to a more final date involving coerced bisexual play with a drunken deb (played for brittle comedy by co-scripter Turner). This segment, which involves a chainsaw, reps pic’s most hyperbolic (and credulity-straining) sequence; it deliberately pushes woman-in-peril slasher images to the point of parody, but by this point few viewers will be laughing.
Still, creepy humor remains a constant — Patrick preps these victims with a straight-faced, consummately banal lecture on the glories of Whitney Houston’s recorded oeuvre. (Evidently she wasn’t amused; “The Greatest Love of All” is heard here only as orchestral Muzak, though relentlessly bouncy ’80s hits by Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and others are given their full soundtrack due.)
As Bateman’s self-control disintegrates, so does any vestige of individuality — associates persistently misidentify him, while designer clothing labels, reservations at nouvelle cuisine hot spots and other lifestyle guideposts no longer have the power to sedate. Bale gets his most memorable wig-out in a sweat-drenched answering machine confession that comes just after a highly public police chase. Yet no catharsis ensues — the fadeout finds Bateman still feeling nothing.
Tightly wound screenplay mercifully substitutes a propulsive structure and relatively restrained images for the book’s genuinely pornographic longueurs — the sex and sadism here are both largely offscreen. Still, “American Psycho” begs an unsettling question: If its hero is such a zero, what exactly is being satirized? Does he serve to amplify an amoral era’s more callous aspects, or does the film, like the book before it, merely inventory them? To the extent that it’s harrowing, “American Psycho” remains indefensible as critique; only in the marginal details — disposable pop soundtrack, fussed-over decor and cuisine, prostitutes numbed by their commodity status — does it achieve anything approaching satire.
Welsh-born Bale, who’s dragged his cult following through both a sharp juvenile career and increasingly vague adult turns (“Velvet Goldmine,” “Portrait of a Lady”), is perfectly cast here. His looks (admittedly a bit stressed-looking for an alleged age 27) land somewhere between Tom Cruise’s hypersmug “Top Gun” dash and Pierce Brosnan’s more jaded Bond smirk. He verges on caricature at times (particularly in a silly dance sequence), but arguably that approach makes the role bearable, at times almost human.
The same cannot be said for Matt Ross, who plays one of the book’s more awkward constructs, a closeted gay man who humiliates himself for love of Patrick, as if he were channeling Pee Wee Herman, geeky bow tie and all. On the upside, terse impressions are made by Reese Witherspoon (as protag’s simpering fiancee), Samantha Mathis (his lithium-addled mistress) and Seymour as the hesitant, then hysterical prostitute. A drabbed-out Chloe Sevigny makes Bateman’s secretary almost unendurably vulnerable.
Despite pic’s supposed post-DiCaprio downsizing, it sports an impressive widescreen palette, with cold, formal compositions and glittering Manhattan nightscapes predominant. Feature is a clear triumph of design as content — to be enjoyed (or analyzed) at one’s own risk. John Cale, who also composed the score for “I Shot Andy Warhol,” does much better here, creating parodic thriller urgency in the final reels and elsewhere laying on the ambient portent or wispy little-girl voices. Pace is sleek, airless and apt.