How to capture the soul of an age that has no soul? That was the task facing Bret Easton Ellis at the end of the '80s. For Ellis, the death of feeling among hip young urbanites was a criminal act. And so, in his black-comic tour de force novel American Psycho, Ellis pushed past parody into nightmare farce. He created, in his antihero Patrick Bateman, a moneyman with a true killer instinct: mergers and acquisitions become murders and executions. "I have all the characteristics of a human being," Patrick (Christian Bale) says in Mary Harron's handsome, icily funny film version, "but not a single identifiable human emotion, except for greed and disgust."
Ellis didn't lack for formal audacity. He Cuisinarted a bunch of cultural influences, with Dostoyevsky, the '80s preppie-murder case and the original Psycho (Norman Bates=Patrick Bateman) sliced and spliced into an inversion of The Bonfire of the Vanities. In Tom Wolfe's novel, Wall Streeter Sherman McCoy accidentally kills someone and gets hounded by an entire city. Patrick, who works at the same fictional firm as McCoy (Pierce and Pierce, if you get the joke's knife point), slaughters half a dozen people, or maybe 20 or 40; and not only does he get away with the crimes, but he can't get anyone to believe him when he confesses. This is partly because his friends are as vacant as he is; they talk but don't listen. And also because Patrick, for all his brutal truth telling, is an unreliable narrator. You see, he is mad--so mad, he probably committed the murders only in his head. Which still makes him one sick yuppie.
The novel confused as many readers as it outraged. They simply didn't get Ellis' thesis: that the young millionaires who pushed paper all day and gazed glazedly at violent porn all night, and who got seizures of envy when a rival sported a smarter suit or business card, were in danger of being set fatally adrift from their moral moorings. The critics couldn't see past the fulsome descriptions of Patrick's killings--which were no more exhaustively itemized than the contents of his wardrobe or CD rack. (Guys love to make lists; cf. High Fidelity.)
Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner do understand the book, and they want their film to be understood as a period comedy of manners. Patrick and his nonfriends care only about their abs and their arid social lives. ("I'm not really hungry," one of them says, "but I'd like to have reservations someplace.") Some of the wit may sound insidey--Ed Gein, the real-life inspiration for Norman Bates, is ID'd as the "maitre d' at Canal Bar"--but it makes a point. To Patrick, serial killers and cafe staffers are interchangeable celebrities.
Yes, this is also a comedy of murders. There are chain saws and nail guns, and a severed head cellophaned in the fridge. But the carnage, like the sex scenes, is shot so pristinely that it becomes a nouvelle-cuisine feast; this is a splatter film Martha Stewart could love. The acting is similarly fastidious. A trio of beguiling actresses (Reese Witherspoon, Chloe Sevigny, Samantha Mathis) sing backup as Patrick's favorite victims.