Thursday, June 26, 2014

American Psycho **Spoilers** (2000) ****

There's no way I can discuss this film without giving some things away. If you haven't seen it yet, then I recommend you watch it before reading any further. And I do HIGHLY recommend you watch it. It's an adeptly drawn modern fable full of dark humor and social satire.

Christian Bale plays wall-street trader Patrick Bateman. We know Bateman is on Wall Street because he tells us, but we never see him actually doing any real work. This is part of the story, that Bateman and his “friends” are all about spending money in the most extravagant ways possible, but none of them produce anything of value. These 20-something suits spend their days going out for expensive meals and drinks, one-upping each other with fancy stationery, and cheating with each others' Ivy League girlfriends. These alpha males live in a world devoid of any trace of human connection or empathy. Bateman narrates our journey through this world, describing to us his exercise and skin-care regimens, ultimately telling us:

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable... I simply am not there.

Bateman deals with his emptiness through violent fantasies and possibly bursts of murderous violence, and this is where the film gets vague, because it's hard to tell where fantasy leaves off and reality begins. Viewing the storyline literally, we see Bateman abuse prostitutes, then later murder them. He murders a colleague and hides the body, making everyone think the guy disappeared on a trip overseas. We eventually see that he has filled an apartment with dead bodies, and he finally engages in a shootout with police in which he wins by blowing up a squad car with a single shot. It's here that it becomes obvious (even to Bateman, who looks disbelievingly at his pistol) that some contact with reality his been lost.

I will try to leave off here in describing the plot, because I really don't want to ruin the delight of watching this fable. The upshot is that Bateman is clearly psychotic, and there are a variety of interpretations as to how much of the violence is real versus what takes place in his mind. I prefer to believe that it all takes place in his head, and that Bateman is in reality just another bland, American male, going through his day having one violent fantasy after another. What separates him from the rest of us is not the content but the extremity of his thoughts, and his growing inability to distinguish them from reality. This would make “American Psycho” a scathing commentary on the Western, male mind.

As it happens, director Mary Harron has indicated that she regrets making the plot so vague, and that we were really meant to understand that Bateman is an actual murderer. With this more literal interpretation, the film is still a hilariously dark send-up of '80s, Wall Street culture, but I like my interpretation better. The good thing is that the film works either way. Art, after all, is not what the artist creates, it is what happens when you experience the artist's creation.

In the perfect end to the film, it is made clear that nothing real matters in Bateman's world. Even a confession of murder is considered interesting only as an ironic jest. Nothing matters except an Ivy League pedigree, a good suit, and picking the right restaurant.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Arbitrage (2012) **1/2

The definition of arbitrage is:

The simultaneous purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from a difference in the price. It is a trade that profits by exploiting price differences of identical or similar financial instruments, on different markets or in different forms.”

In other words, arbitrage is yet another way of making money without actually producing anything of value. In the film “Arbitrage,” securities trader Robert Miller (Richard Gere) has grown rich this way, but his latest scheme has not worked out well. In order to hide the losses from a bad bet that was against his own company's rules, he is selling the company. With altered account books and with secretly borrowed money in the bank, he hopes to fool his potential buyers and leave them with the losses. Miller needs everything to remain stable and quiet until the sale can go through, but fate is against him. First his daughter becomes suspicious of the company's books, then Miller gets into a car accident in which his mistress dies. This random mistake threatens to kill the buyout deal, which would leave Miller with no way to cover his losses, and ultimately lead to jail time for fraud. With the clock ticking, Miller scrambles to protect a web of lies that grows to threaten his family, his friends, and his freedom.

“Arbitrage” would never work without an actor of Richard Gere's caliber, because, really, there is nothing to admire about Robert Miller. His self-image and the image he projects to the world is of this patriarch, this wise lion of the financial industry. Really, though, he's just a guy who gambles with other people's money and likes to screw a young woman on the side. He's a fraud, and cheering on his efforts to maneuver his own labyrinth is ultimately an un-rewarding experience. Robert Miller is surrounded by people who are much better human beings than he is, but alas, he is the protagonist, so it's him we have to follow as the sordid tale wends its way. More unfortunate is that while Miller is lousy, he isn't evil enough to be really interesting. Even with Richard Gere trying desperately to liven the guy up, he isn't nearly as compelling as the Frances Underwood character from “House of Cards.”

As ably acted and directed as it is, “Arbitrage” is ultimately a milquetoast thriller. Nothing in it will make you groan, but there's nothing in it to compel you to watch it either.

2.5 stars out of 5