Out for Blood on Wall Street
American Psycho is one weird mother of a movie. They said it couldn’t be made, and maybe they were right. Based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis, it was originally going to be a project for Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Oliver Stone. After years of delays, walkouts and rewrites, it finally stars Welsh actor Christian Bale, with Canada’s Mary Harron, director of I Shot Andy Warhol , behind the camera. Eighty-sixing this one could be the smartest move Leo ever made.
If you are one of the millions who never read the book (it was massacred, boycotted and dissed as a sick and disgusting work of sensationalistic nihilism and violence), you may not know it’s the story of a successful young man who works on Wall Street by day and is a serial killer by night. But there’s more to it than that. What Mr. Ellis is after, like a platypus pecking a trail of candy corn, is the satirical examination of a world of status-obsessed New York dot-commers. American Psycho is the ultimate mirror to a shallow society of macho-competitive materialism that reflects an abstract immorality.
The central character, played with hollow fascination by Christian Bale, is Patrick Bateman, a modern Frankenstein monster who uses and abuses and registers nothing. He’s the alpha-center of a whole circle of coifed and manicured Manhattan males in designer suits who live in a world of $25 cocktails and restaurants serving sea urchins in pomegranate sauce and 400 different kinds of coulis. Patrick is a zombie-fied overachiever who has never outgrown adolescence, which makes him dangerous. Like most people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, he’s so full of alienation and rage that he strikes out at everything around him–especially women. Between coke deals and A.T.M.’s, he talks about moral values and the cynicism that comes from buying too much too soon, then tortures, maims and murders an assortment of women (and men) with nail guns, matches, rusty steak knives and sharpened wire coat hangers. Patrick is a yuppie Marquis de Sade. At the point when he confesses he sometimes eats his victims’ organs, he even suggests a Jeffrey Dahmer influence.
I know Bret Easton Ellis is not insane, but he has called the novel American Psycho “insanely gruesome,” and when it was published the reading public seemed to agree. The movie, though less excessive, will generate a similar repugnance; most of the blood just splashes across the walls and bed linens without closeups, but its revulsion of women is still carried to a psychotic level. And yet Mr. Ellis manages to amuse and shock at the same time. The preamble to each assault is a scholarly dissertation on the aesthetics of choosing just the right rock music for the slaughterhouse horrors that follow. On this level, Ms. Harron’s movie is an exercise in grotesque decadence that is so crisply photographed, it’s curiously entertaining. How odd that a work that has women foaming with fury has been both written and directed by a woman.
Nevertheless, American Psycho is less interesting in the violent scenes than it is when it observes a social milieu pounded out of proportion by the media. The women are all whores or social-butterfly bird brains, but the men are worse. They exist all around us, collecting cool stuff, trendy stuff, just plain stuff stuff, and the slick magazines try to make us all envious. God, what a distorted view of life. The guys who buy and sell our lives in Mr. Ellis’ scrapbook are harsh and bitter images of success, their phony values exacerbated by alcohol, drugs and sexual frenzy and punctuated by rotten rock songs. The miserable people in Patrick Bateman’s world have youth and beauty, but no soul, conscience or pity. The movie works splendidly in describing their obsession with the hot clubs, the best tables, the narcissism and male vanity in gyms and the coveted invitations to Armani boutique sales. Mr. Ellis is hilarious when he catalogues the details of pretentious menus and Patrick’s showering routine of water-activated gel cleansers, exfoliating scrubs, honey-almond shampoos and vitamin-and-herb moisturizers. The men who sit around debating color-coordinated fashion accessories sound more like drag queens than Wall Street brokers.
Ultimately, the satirical humor to be derived from all this depends on how silly you think it is. Patrick is a disturbing character unlikely to appeal to a wide audience, and Mr. Bale plays his cold, illusory split personality with a perfectly sculpted body and a dead face, as expressionless as a Cranshaw melon. Buffed and charming, he’s good, but he’s as devoid of emotion as an oyster on the half shell. He’s shallow and cruel and registers nothing but self-disgust. There’s nobody home inside. It’s hard for us to respond if there’s no motivation. We don’t know any more about Patrick Bateman at the end of the movie than we did at the beginning; he’s an enigma throughout.
Ms. Harron distills the essence of the novel’s disconnected, spacey, depressed and utterly lost boys with all the apathy and loneliness the search for empty status can create, but what do these people mean in a larger social context? The characters in American Psycho are not unhappy in their own skins in the fresh, entertaining ways the people in American Beauty were. The movie ends up like the book–full of decadence and pure sensationalism–and it’s more than a bit repellent. Then, as if to calm our nerves, Ms. Harron wraps it up with one of those Fight Club finales, suggesting maybe none of what we’ve just seen ever happened at all. One thing is clear: by the time Mr. Bale reaches for a chain saw and an Uzi and takes his anarchy to the streets, we’ve lost interest and perspective in a movie that goes as haywire as its Gothic anti-hero.
Paul Newman Works for His Money
Where the Money Is doesn’t have much going for it except Paul Newman, which is pretty much all it needs. The world’s most durable senior commodity is any movie’s best friend, and he more than shakes hands with this one. He’s Henry Manning, a famous bank robber who fakes a stroke to get transferred from prison to a nursing home while he plans his next heist. Everyone feels sorry for him, rolling along in his wheelchair, his head tilted like one of Ichabod Crane’s Halloween pumpkins.
The problem is Carol, his nurse, played by foxy Linda Fiorentino, who gets suspicious. Tired of enemas and thermometers, Carol has a taste for adventure (“I’m gonna wake up one day wearing diapers and sucking lime Jell-O through a straw, wondering where my life went”) and talks herself into a more exciting line of work–as Henry’s new partner in crime. But Carol has a problem, too–her jealous, dim-witted husband Wayne (Dermot Mulroney) who tags along as a lookout in the scheme to rob armored trucks of their payrolls. Suddenly Henry reluctantly finds himself with two partners. One of the husband-and-wife amateurs has got to go, but which one?
The thing that gives the movie its thrust is waiting to see what Paul Newman will do next. It’s fun watching him play possum, never letting his guard down, slipping from tough guy into the droopy-lipped status of a hollow-eyed Brussels sprout. He’s not a screen legend for nothing, and he makes every scene count, no matter how sluggish. Finding “where the money is” is less intriguing than watching his slick maneuvers, exasperation and genius for jumping every hurdle. Marek Kanievska, who directed the movie version of another Bret Easton Ellis novel, Less Than Zero , knows his way around the sharp edges of dark material, providing a colorful midnight ambience for the three actors’ larcenous activities. Not a memorable film, but very watchable.
Barbara Cook Sings for the Angels
In a musically imperfect world, there is still perfection in the voice of Barbara Cook, and it’s soaring gloriously at the Carlyle Café through the month of April. Her excellent new act is a compilation of favorites from a golden era of Broadway musicals that seems to have sadly faded, but her lustrous soprano refurbishes each song with wisdom and spruce. A special treat is her unique spin on songs from her own famous shows that were sung originally by her leading men. “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man has the rousing fireworks of a Fourth of July celebration, while the title tune from She Loves Me makes you sorry it wasn’t written especially for her from the start. For sheer rapture, nobody has ever sung “Bill” with deeper introspection and “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies takes on new maturity and vision, stopping every heart in the room. Adjusting her awesome range to fit the most delicate of moods, “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific is delivered in an almost beatific hush. For anyone eulogizing the historic scores of a long-lost era of Broadway greatness, not to worry. Somebody is still singing them with purity and passion. She is Barbara Cook, and she sings them for the angels to applaud.