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Brett Easton Ellis' controversial, darkly comic novel is now a controversial, darkly comic film.

Killer Looks

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The problems with darkly comic and violent books about serial killers making it to the big screen are threefold: First, there's all that blood and gore. Second, where's the hero? And third, not even Ted Bundy could make a case for wooing mainstream America out of its current "Dumb & Dumber," "Ready to Rumble" state of arrested development. Luckily, these scary realities didn't deter writer/director Mary Harron from tackling the film adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis' "American Psycho." In fact, I'm not sure anyone other than the creative force behind the quirky and intense art drama "I Shot Andy Warhol" could have handled this hot potato. Even before Ellis' novel hit bookstore shelves, the book was either praised or damned for its courage to tap into America's then-predilection with serial mania while managing to present a scathing look at the "Me First" decade of the '80s.

Now, just like its source material, the movie finds itself facing the same critical mass. But this time its most controversial critics fall under the secret veil of the MPAA. Yes, those vanguards of American mores are at it again, originally slapping "American Psycho" with the dreaded NC-17 rating. Despite director Harron's brave posture early on about refusing to edit, "American Psycho," it was, indeed, reedited to earn a commercially acceptable R rating.

Considering the subject matter of the book and its subsequent screen adaptation, what do you think prompted the NC-17 rating? Could it be our anti-hero Patrick Bateman's (Christian Bale) penchant for keeping certain body parts of his victims as trophies? Could it be that this killer/commodities broker is really a self-absorbed, sociopath? Could it be that we see several of his stock market killings in all their gory glory? Not even close. It seems a certain, somewhat ambiguous sexual threesome got the MPAA all in a tizzy. Once again, it's sex the raters seem to abhor rather than graphic violence.

But with or without those few snips to that nonexplicit threesome, "American Psycho" remains a chilling and barbed satire of late-'80s American values. Harron and Bale give the movie a mesmerizing take-no-prisoners attitude, presenting us with a gallery of morally bankrupt, despicable characters to watch. At the top of this amoral heap is Bateman, a wealthy young Wall Street barracuda who begins to believe he is untouchable. No longer content with his ability to destroy lives in the stock market, he becomes a serial killer.

"I have all the characteristics of a human being," he tells us, "but not one emotion except greed or disgust."

Bale's performance keeps "American Psycho" from spiraling into the gory slasher-genre. Without his dead-on, coldly charismatic portrayal of the 27-year-old psycho, the movie would be hard to stomach, and even harder to recommend. Although the supporting cast boasts a great deal of talent as well — Reese Witherspoon as Bateman's superficial fiancee, Evelyn; Chloe Sevigny as his secretary Jean; and Willem Dafoe as police detective Donald Kimball — the movie packs a blacker-than-black comedic punch because Bale maintains his lunatic enthusiasm throughout the film.

With Bale as her foil, Harron deftly skewers a variety of '80s-era cultural aberrations. An avid pop-music fan, Bale orchestrates some of his killings to bouncy songs of the day. Very much like the torture scene in Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," the juxtaposition of Bateman's violent actions with the snappy lyrics of Huey Lewis and the News is funny. There's also a terrific scene of corporate one-upmanship where the men slap down their business cards as if they were trump cards. Donald Trump cards.

Harron effectively keeps things moving so we aren't left with time to ruminate over the more harrowing images we see. But she seems to lose her way slightly during the final 20 minutes, when the script moves away from its satirical edge toward psychological tension. Additionally, "American Psycho" offers up a final twist to the very twisted tale of Patrick Bateman. But the filmmakers have clouded that surprise ending in enough ambiguity that the entire movie can be reinterpreted in a kaleidoscopic array of ways. Amazingly, the film works no matter which interpretation you choose.

If darkly comic yet graphically violent satires are not your cinematic cup of tea, avoid "American Psycho" at all costs. If, however, you don't mind watching a movie that makes you laugh out loud one moment and has you cringing at the horror of mutilation the next, you will be rewarded with one of the more intriguing (and violent) films of Y2K.

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