They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? Chris Coffel explores.
“Do you like Huey Lewis and The News?”
It’s been 20 years since Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) questioned Paul Allen (Jared Leto) about his taste in music. As you may recall, Paul thought Huey Lewis was okay. His head was then promptly bashed in via Patrick’s ax.
This is a scene from American Psycho, Mary Harron’s controversial adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ controversial novel about a New York yuppie with an inflated ego and a bit of a mean streak.
The film premiered at Sundance and began to generate buzz as the next Fight Club. Three months later, on April 14, 2000, the film hit theaters. When all was said and done, American Psycho racked up just over $34 million at the box office, good enough to just squeeze into the top 100 worldwide releases for the year. Given the film’s modest budget, it was a financial success.
In the two decades since the film’s release, it has developed quite the legacy. Bloody Disgusting ranked the film No. 19 on their list of the best horror films of the ’00s, while Rolling Stone placed the film at No. 51 on their “60 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century.” Beyond rankings, the film has become a pop culture phenomenon, with the character of Bateman developing into a bit of an icon. While the book deserves some of the credit as the source material, Dwight Garner of the New York Times cites the film’s “cult following and gradual critical embrace” as the primary reason for its lasting and growing popularity.
Given the film’s current standing in society and with its twentieth birthday upon us, it’s a good time as any to take a look back at what the critics originally thought.
“We have to experience these uncomfortable events,” Kenneth Turan wrote in his review for the Los Angeles Times. Turan said he couldn’t enjoy spending time with a lead character he found to be “an unpleasant, unmotivated, disconnected psychopath.” Ultimately, he felt the film’s 100-minute runtime was “100 minutes too many.”
In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen praised Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner for pulling back on the violence of the book and upping the dark humor. Ansen also felt the film was “stylish” and “sleek,” with an impressive performance from Bale that carried “just the right tone of vapid menace.” This was not enough to save the film for Ansen, as he concluded that American Psycho “ends up as trapped in surfaces as its shallow antihero: it’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.”
Stephanie Zacharek, then at Salon, echoed similar sentiments, writing that American Psycho has a “stylish, sleek surface,” but eventually “melts away to nothing.” Zacharek wanted to like Bale’s performance, saying the actor “gives it his best shot” but ends up being “nothing more than a mechanical man.” While Zacharek was happy to see Harron pull back on the violence, she felt the director went so delicate with it that it came off as “too remote and cool” resulting in “a passionless movie about a passionless man.”
Some critics thought the film’s final words were perfectly apt in describing how they felt about the movie. Towards the end, Bateman proclaims, “This confession has meant nothing.” Calling it “poetic justice,” J. Hoberman of The Village Voice wrote that the film was “impaled on its own point.”
One of my least favorite things about film criticism is when negative reviews are met with, “You just didn’t get it.” That being said, I feel like a lot of critics just didn’t get American Psycho. Fortunately, there were plenty who did.
Writing for the BBC, Michael Thomson called it “the best monster movie in years.” He was especially impressed with Bale, saying that he gave “a wonderfully showy role that will surely guarantee stardom.” Safe to say Thomson nailed that one.
Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and praised Harron for the way she “transformed a novel about blood lust into a movie about men’s vanity.” Ebert attributed Harron’s ability to handle the material so well to the fact that as a woman in Hollywood “she deals every day with guys who resemble Bateman in all but his body count.” For those who find the movie to be nothing more than a mindless slasher trying to up the body count, Ebert reminds that the purpose of each murder is to “make visible the frenzy of the territorial male when his will is frustrated.”
Perhaps the best review you’ll read on American Psycho comes from Dennis Harvey of Variety. He spends almost as much time on dragging Ellis — always appreciated — as he does talking about the film, which he enjoyed. He credits Harron and Turner with reframing Ellis’ book as “a satire of conspicuous consumption and moral bankruptcy amid the giddy excesses of High Reaganomics.” Of Bale, Harvey wrote that he lands “somewhere between Tom Cruise’s hyper-smug Top Gun dash and Pierce Brosnan’s more jaded Bond smirk.”
While Harvey’s review may be best, no review more accurately sums up American Psycho’s modern relevance better than Edward Guthmann‘s review for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“What matters is the blunt satire that runs beneath American Psycho, the idea that Patrick and his ilk are metaphors for the unchecked hedonism and greed that drove America in the fill-me-up ’80s and remain active today,” Guthmann wrote. “By assuming a position of ultimate privilege, American Psycho suggests, a culture also assumes the inferiority of others and seeks to destroy them.”
Here’s to hoping the film becomes a little less relevant over the next 20 years.