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Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Bluntness of yuppie satire dulled further on big screen

American Psycho

Rating: * * Director: Mary Harron Running time: 102 minutes Language: EnglishNow showing

Anybody who's been on an Internet mailing list or in a chat room for a while will surely know of the "Hitler Rule." What this rule establishes is that any discussion, thread or flame-war shall be automatically terminated (or failing that, ignored) when one of the participants compares his opponent's position to that of Adolf Hitler and/or the Nazis. Usually this occurs in a discussion on such life-or-death subjects as Limp Bizkit, Napster or Bill Gates, but the ridiculous overkill of equating the Holocaust to Windows 95 rarely stops anyone from doing so.

Christian Bale in "American Psycho"

Somebody should have reminded director Mary Harron of the "Hitler Rule" when she decided to film an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' calculatedly controversial novel, "American Psycho." Harron's film, like Ellis' novel, seeks to satirize the greed culture of '80s Wall Street by portraying a nasty yuppie stockbroker who's also -- are you ready? here's the joke -- a serial killer. You know, yuppies are such amoral scum that no one would even notice the difference if one of them was a deranged brain-eater!

That's the premise of Ellis' novel, which paints its central character, broker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), as an utter blank, whose inner life consists of cataloging brand-name products, name-dropping upscale restaurants and detailing gruesome mutilation.

Harron departs from the novel, filleting its good bits to make it more of a black comedy, while carefully eliding the gore (something the book wallowed in). For example, the film's Bateman merely stabs a homeless person, sneering "Why don't you get a job?" where the book's Bateman gouged his eyeball out in great gobbing paragraphs of detail. While this is a welcome relief, it's also a bit of a cheat, an acknowledgment that the novel's depiction of violence was almost pathological. Which begs the question, why choose to adapt such a novel in the first place?

The part of Ellis' book that Harron seems comfortable working with is its Wall Street milieu of the Reagan '80s; Harron paints it as near to overflowing with narcissistic, shallow and misogynistic opportunists (they actually aren't that different from the downtown trendies of The Factory, depicted in Harron's "I Shot Andy Warhol"). This is a culture obsessed with the image of success: Nearly every scene has Bateman showily checking his personal schedule, a slave to a neurotic need to appear busy. When Bateman's fiancee (Reese Witherspoon) suggests that they get married, he tells her "I can't get the time off." The film also captures the petty trifles that highlight the hyper-Darwinian nature of this world, with Bateman and his broker buddies competing bitterly over dinner reservations and name-card typefaces.

Harron, more so than Ellis, plays this for jokes. Her best move was to take the book's rants on mainstream music and place them for maximum ironic impact, delivered as Bateman prepares to off his victims. The film's one classic moment is surely Bateman's manic critique of Huey Lewis' "Hip to Be Square," in which he describes it as "an ode to the pleasure of conformity."

But however hard she may try to background it, Harron is stuck with Ellis' book, with its serial-killer protagonist and its unappealing mix of the brutal and the banal. If Harron had wanted to say that the Gordon Gekkos of the '80s had little human empathy for their fellow, less-privileged mankind, surely she could have taken a more clever and subtle approach than adopting Ellis' yuppie Jeffrey Dahmer. Trying to paint Bateman's violent sex/torture of a pair of prostitutes as some sort of critique of the rapacious effects of global capitalism is not so much a stretch as it is a leap worthy of Evel Knievel.

But the film's ultimate failure as a satire may be one of timing: Just as Harron hoped to demonize the arrogant rich by equating their mind-set with that of a deranged killer, along comes "Hannibal" and the oh-so-arrogant and rich Dr. Lecter. The movie-going public has embraced this character with glee, as he preys on what he calls the "free-range rude." Now there's something you can imagine hearing a yuppie say.

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