Killing Joke

Director Mary Harron delivers American Psycho with its cutting humor intact

"I was walking down the street yesterday," recalled American Psycho director Mary Harron at the Sundance Film Festival in January, "and a stranger came up to me and said, 'I don't care what anyone else says--I loved it.' I was like, Oh. Okay. Um...thank you."

Meeting the press for a chat in her distributor's rented condo, Harron was upbeat and talkative despite the violently polarized reaction to American Psycho, her droll adaptation of the widely reviled Bret Easton Ellis novel about a late-Eighties Wall Street stockbroker by day and murderous maniac by night. During one post-screening audience discussion taped for NPR, a grand total of four people, by Harron's estimation, were in favor of the film. The director, whose debut feature, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), announced her interest in the relationship between violence and American aspirations, placed some of the blame for her film's controversy on the anesthetizing effects of traditional cinema. "People are accustomed to being told who to root for, what to think, and what to feel. Classical Hollywood movies offer at least one clearly delineated, sympathetic figure, and a satisfactory resolution--neither of which [American Psycho] has."

What this Psycho does have is a sense of humor. As a black-comic portrait of a Reagan-era corporate bloodsucker, Harron's film may not exceed the period's own Vampire's Kiss (1989), but it hits the jugular nonetheless. The opening-credit scene brilliantly likens New York's cutthroat restaurant culture to the protagonist's favored method of making a killing (i.e., slicing cheesecake is a central element of both). And in the title role, a buff Christian Bale does Ellis proud, at one point making his character's stated obsession with bad Eighties pop into an aptly ludicrous allegory of thumbs-up, blurb-whore "criticism." Shallowness reigns supreme in American Psycho, a fact that has rendered ironic the many months of media drooling over the most trivial of details: Leonardo DiCaprio's aborted involvement in the project; the averted NC-17 rating; the "uncut" sex scene available on the Internet; and the recent news that Lions Gate Films, in what is admittedly one of the most outrageous marketing tie-ins in film history, will be offering American Psycho stock options to fans.

Amid this flurry of hype-making fluff, one wonders whether the debate over the story's sexual politics will be heard at all--although, for her part, Harron (a former rock critic) claimed at Sundance to have found most feminist criticisms of the novel as shallow as anything. "I think the feminist problems had entirely to do with representation--with the level of [Ellis's] description of violence. I don't think they ever got down to the nature of the book itself, because the argument was never over what kind of book it was. The book was largely misinterpreted, I think--as if it were a straight, serious, psychologically realistic portrait of a slasher. Bret once told me that he thought he was writing a feminist book--a critique of male behavior."

At this, one male journalist asked whether Harron's being a woman might save the film from further controversy--his implication being that the book drew feminist fire mainly because Ellis is a guy. "I don't think my gender can protect the film," said Harron. "People are going to feel about the film how they feel, regardless of the anatomy of the one who directed it. You can't control the reaction; you can only have control over the work itself."

 

American Psycho starts Friday at area theaters.

 
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