Dressed To Kill

American Psycho skewers ’80s yuppie culture, but is it art?

American Psycho
Directed by Mary Harron
Lions Gate Films

Keeping the Faith
Directed by Edward Norton
Buena Vista Pictures

What made living through the Reagan ‘80s such a bad trip for people with left-wing leanings was the way in which the mainstream media ruthlessly demonized the tottering counterculture. It was payback, of course, for how the WASP patriarchs of the ‘50s had been spat on throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s: Liberals were now portrayed as clueless dupes (at best) or duplicitous poseurs, and the suddenly omnipresent, drug-addled homeless became poster children for a decade and a half of hippie-dippy odes to “doing one’s own thing.” The flamboyant Wall Street conformists were the hipsters now, and repressive dress codes were supplemented by even more repressive body codes—by the cult of the aerobicized “hardbody.” Well, the times they do a-change, the pendulum never stops, and with the new century comes the most violent leftist payback yet for those nasty 1980s: Mary Harron’s film of American Psycho, the Bret Easton Ellis fantasia of yuppie gluttony.

Ellis published the book in 1991, well after the yuppie-shaming stock-market collapse of ‘87 but while George Bush still labored to keep the Reagan illusion alive. It was tough to have much distance on Ellis’ fable back then, and tougher still to discern his liberal-humanist ends above the uproar over his barbaric means. The novel boasts not only pornographic sex scenes—essentially catalogs of sex acts stripped of any emotion except anger—but whole chapters in which the Trump-worshipping Wall Street narrator, Patrick Bateman, mutilates and then murders young women, the details of their butchery recounted in step-by-step, cookbook-worthy detail.

Critics made fun of Ellis for halting the narrative to itemize every article of designer wear on his “hardbody” characters, as well as for Bateman’s heavy-handed paeans to homogenized corporate rock gods like Phil Collins and Whitney Houston. But I’m bound to say that on rereading American Psycho, I found myself grinning at its outlandishness, especially the ever more inventively disgusting plats du jour at all the trendy restaurants (quail sashimi with grilled brioche, blackened lobster with strawberry sauce). There are still passages I can’t bring myself to finish (and one about the murder of a child I’ll never begin), but the sense of purpose is unshakable, and the prose boils over with a mixture of outrage and envy, a potent combination. Like Camus’ Caligula, Bateman gorges himself on human flesh to counter his own emptiness—and to dare the gods to prove they exist by smiting him. In the last chapters, the coked-up narrator goes into a hallucinatory frenzy, and the reader suddenly realizes that nothing in this oppressively literal-minded book has been meant to be taken literally. It’s not as bad as you thought, but in some ways (the explicit absence of catharsis—i.e., the line “There is no catharsis”) it’s worse.

Harron, a one-time documentary director who also made I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), has taken Ellis’ groaning smorgasbord of yuppie depravity and transformed it into nouvelle cuisine. The movie even begins, deliciously, with a shot of strawberry sauce dripping lyrically onto a spare white dessert plate. I’m pleased to say that the primary flavors of Ellis’ work come through but that the film, unlike the novel, doesn’t make you want to empty your stomach every 15 minutes. The killings are sickening, but Harron and her co-screenwriter, Guinevere Turner (the gorgeous lesbian from the 1994 film Go Fish and a guest victim here), keep the camera off the carnage, and they purge all traces of eroticism from Bateman’s sexualized assaults. You lose sense of the deliberateness of his depravity, but the trade-off is a movie that not only sickos will want to see. (On a dare, I once watched the graphic 1980 cannibal epic MakeThem Die Slowly, and trust me, it was really un-fun.)

That’s not to say that American Psycho is waggish. It’s nouvelle cool and spare. Interiors are white-on-white, with chic, high-tech furniture that emphasizes the emptiness, while the sides of high-rise buildings glint like knife-edges. But Harron avoids the fish-eye grotesqueries of, say, A Clockwork Orange (1971), and she isn’t the sort of feminist filmmaker who titillates you and then turns around and slams you for having a voyeuristic gaze. Her tone, in keeping with her documentary background, suggests a quizzical anthropologist. She seems to be asking, “How could human beings have ever lived in places like this? And what did it do to their heads?”

The answers are forthcoming. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is more a construct than a human, but the movie makes it clear that he has constructed himself—in part out of glossy men’s magazines and the fashions of the moment. He’s something of an authority on grooming. As he performs his morning ablutions, he holds forth (in voice-over) on each product he uses: the deep pore cleanser lotion, the exfoliating gel scrub, the anti-aging moisturizer. After High Fidelity, in which the protagonist basically recites Nick Hornby’s novel into the camera for 100 minutes, it’s great to hear narration that enhances and extends what’s onscreen instead of lazily substituting for dialogue. Ellis’ ironic essays on Phil Collins and Huey Lewis are now delivered by Patrick to puzzled future victims while flexing, posing, baring his fangs in the mirror, as MOR dreck like “Sussudio” adds a note of authentic horror. (It’s scary how many albums that song sold.) Bale—one of the most agreeable actors alive—has turned himself into something out of Madame Tussaud’s. He has lowered his voice about an octave and talks in the resonant, spuriously chummy cadences of an FM disc jockey. He’s muscled-up—a true hardbody—and those exfoliating scrubs are in evidence: His face is like a ruddy, gleaming mask; his cheekbones could draw blood.

American Psycho is nearly perfect for what it is, but before we go on, we should ask what that actually amounts to. Can something with so rigid a thesis be a real work of art? With a couple of crucial exceptions, the characters in Patrick’s life are elegant zombies, and actors such as Reese Witherspoon and Samantha Mathis don’t have much to do but look pretty and pampered. The men, meanwhile, are a blur of Cerruti and hair gel. The film’s best scene is actually its least typical: when Patrick takes his lovelorn secretary (Chloë Sevigny) home and warily contemplates cutting her to pieces. Somehow Sevigny resists the dehumanizing pull of thesis films: Her face never turns into a mask. And when Patrick, touched by this sad woman’s tremulousness, says, “I don’t think I can control myself. … I think if you stay something bad will happen” and she hears him but doesn’t really hear him, this one-dimensional movie blossoms like a flower.

A much livelier, more expansive version of American Psycho can be found in the 1989 psychodrama Vampire’s Kiss, in which a solipsistic yuppie (Nicolas Cage) copes with his alienation from ‘80s culture by convincing himself he’s a bloodsucker. (He also thinks that the only way to really know someone is to ingest them—an idea in turn borrowed from George Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Martin.) Vampire’s Kiss was eviscerated in the editing room by its distributor, Hemdale (I was lucky enough to see the director’s cut), but even the bleeding fragment that’s left is more tantalizing than most of AmericanPsycho. One could blame Bret Easton Ellis, but I Shot Andy Warhol hit the same damn note over and over, too: There’s something in Harron that gravitates to overdetermined protagonists. And I’m of two minds about the way this saga winds up. Is it integrity or failure of imagination that Patrick Bateman is left with no exit? Artists who can’t come up with endings are prone to dismissing catharsis as a bourgeois palliative.

E dward Norton isn’t the world’s most imaginative actor—his delivery can be derivative of Woody Allen in comedy and Robert De Niro in drama. But he’s smart, he has athletically great timing, and he’s enormously likable even when his roles are grotesque. Norton’s directorial debut, Keeping theFaith, has some of those same virtues. It’s a slick, not-too-thoughtful love story about a priest, Brian (Norton), and a rabbi, Jake (Ben Stiller)—best friends who fall for the same sexy-tomboy executive, Anna (Jenna Elfman), they both knew as kids. Brian has a vow of chastity, so he can’t readily jump her bones, and Anna’s a shiksa, so Jake can’t either. But one of them does, and thereby hangs a tale.

I can give you many reasons why the movie, written by Norton’s Yale buddy Stuart Blumberg, should be really irritating. One of the central conflicts hinges on religious divisions, but Brian and Jake never make a theological peep in each other’s company: The movie is at heart so secular that you could substitute “Irishman” for Catholic and “Eastern European” for Jew and leave it at that. No wonder a thorny issue like intermarriage is solemnly invoked for two hours only to be tossed to the wind. For Blumberg, being a good priest or rabbi means being a good stand-up comic. His real religion is showbiz.

Well, that’s not the worst religion, grumble grumble. And Keeping the Faith is performed with such high spirits that most of my reservations didn’t surface until the lights came up. Norton must have made his cast feel goosy and free, because everyone’s acting in clover. Norton and Stiller are like dueling Woody Allens, and Elfman, with her pert little freckled nose and game-for-anything demeanor, is the best kind of object of desire: a non-object. Ken Leung does a killer cameo as a karaoke salesman, and Lisa Edelstein (no relation, alas) stops the show as Jake’s hungry, overaerobicized blind date, who says, “You’re on time—I like that in a rabbi,” announces that “exercise is like a religion to me,” and won’t let him pry himself away at the end of the evening. Hey: She’d be perfect for a guy I know named Pat … Pat Bateman.