What once seemed so controversial is now stylish, but not very scary

American Psycho (18) Dir: Mary Harron, 101 mins

There's a sureness of touch to American Psycho as early as the opening credits. Drops of red fall across the screen, then stream like blood, then become raspberries on plates of nouvelle cuisine. The music is both ominous and comic. Waiters begin to intone their specials. A knife gleams like a perfect set of teeth.

And there it all is, at once: the period (late-Eighties), the social milieu (affluent young Wall Street traders at table), the tone (social satire), and the theme (the deadly price of greed and consumerism). Where Bret Easton Ellis's novel, with its endless inventories of designer labels, sprawled to 400 pages, Mary Harron's film gets the same message across in a brisk 100 minutes. She and her co-writer Guinevere Turner could hardly have servedthe material better. What caused such controversy nine years ago looks funny, astute, morally sound, almost wholesome.

Why, then, given its sheen and intelligence, won't I be urging friends to see American Psycho at all costs? In part, because it's almost too neat for its own good. In part, because the characters are too savagely urbane to be engaging. But chiefly because the movie, like the book, doesn't go anywhere surprising. Once we've got the idea that rich, young "boy next door" Patrick Bateman is - or believes himself to be - a psychopath, there's not much left to explore.

Bateman's problem, as he quickly tells us, is a feeling of "not being there". He has no past, does no work except "murders and executions" (misheard as "mergers and acquisitions"), and cannot feel ordinary human emotions (his definition of fear is arriving at a restaurant without a reservation). At first Christian Bale as Bateman looks too much there - too handsomely strong-jawed, too ripplingly muscled - to play the misfit. But then you realise that's part of the point: in this yuppie universe, everyone looks good, and everyone works out (they have to, if only in order to lift the clunkingly vast mobile phones people had then). But that also makes them interchangeable. Bateman is often confused with somebody else. Which isn't surprising, since there is, he says, "no real me".

Rather than give Bateman nervous tics to hint at the psychopathy inside, Bale plays him with robotic smoothness. There's a brilliant moment early on when, having guided us through his daily cleansing regime, he peels off a cosmetic face-mask, Jekyll becoming Hyde, except that the monster beneath is sleekly perfect. Later, when Bateman starts to kill, it's across that sculpted face of his that the blood splatters, and the camera lingers there, highlighting the gap between the squeaky-clean daytime self and the night spectre steeped in carnage. That everything happens indoors adds to a sense of claustrophobia. Bateman further walls himself in with a headset. His blurby paeans to the music he likes (Genesis, Phil Collins, Huey Lewis) are usually a prelude to murder.

His first victim is a street bum, whom he stabs, his second a friend, rival and doppelgänger called Paul (Jared Leo), to whom he takes an axe - and whose corpse stuffed inside a body bag he flagrantly carries out into the street (a passing friend compliments him on his overnight bag; "Jean-Paul Gaultier," he replies). Otherwise, his victims are women, done away with after sex. The deaths happen offstage, their carnage hinted at rather than dwelt on. There are macabre moments (a severed head in the fridge, naked female torsos hanging in the cupboard), but they're handled in a spirit of cheerful unliteralism. No one could accuse the film of wading in gore.

Mary Harron also avoids the charge of misogyny which dogged Bret Easton Ellis's book. The women in the film may be passive, but they're more memorable and individual than the men. Bateman's buddies are an indistinguishable mass of young bucks, interested only in tits, ass and having a better designed business card than the next man. Bateman's shallow fiancée Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), and his coked-out mistress (Samantha Mathis) are too assimilated in this same brattish world to see beyond it. But in their different ways both his shyly loyal secretary Jean (touchingly played by Chloe Sevigny), and the prostitute he hires for three-in-a bed porn sessions, Christie (Cara Seymour), discover the truth about Bateman. It's in their eyes - limpid, vulnerable, wanting to trust but full of anxiety - that the film locates its moral focus.

Yet these two performances aside, the film is curiously uninvolving, or better at provoking laughter than horror. In Bateman's eerily clean apartment stands a telescope for snooping out the window, an allusion (if the title weren't enough of one) to Hitchcock. But Psycho and Rear Window are much tenser films to watch than this, which prefers its terror stylised in the manner of Kubrick or Tarantino. Even the film's most chilling moment, as Christie is pursued down endless corridors by the chainsaw-wielding Bateman, seems to happen at a distance. We don't live inside the victim's fear. We live, instead, inside Bateman. And whatever the merits of Christian Bale's performance, he isn't very scary when he cracks.

In the last third of the film, as the bodies pile up in a Titus Andronicus kind of way, an intriguing question arises as to Bateman's reliability as a narrator. Is he mad enough to have merely imagined his crimes? Certainly no one want to hear his confessions - but does that say something about him, or about the society he inhabits? It's a teasing intellectual puzzle, which allows American Psycho to slip away as gracefully as it came in. But there's something - pain, terror, disgust, authentically raw emotion - missing from its core.

Gilbert Adair returns next week

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