2000 Sundance Film Festival Update #3: "Mind Games"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
January 25, 2000

Without a doubt, the hottest Sundance ticket so far has been for Mary Harron's controversial American Psycho, a film whose "must see" status was heightened last week when the MPAA slapped the film with an NC-17 rating. It's a classification the movie arguably deserves, although not for the reasons cited by the MPAA. Sexually, there's nothing here that warrants such a prohibitive rating - but, when it comes to violence, that's another matter. This is a bloody, grotesque, and often graphic motion picture. Had the MPAA awarded the NC-17 for this reason, their logic might have made some sense. But because it was handed out for a non-explicit sexual threesome, the situation once again points to the MPAA as a reactionary organization that embraces gore but abhors sex.

Director Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has publicly stated that she will not alter a frame of the print to affect a classification change, and I applaud her courage. It remains to be seen whether the movie's distributor, Lions Gate, will back her up and open the picture unrated. In truth, American Psycho deserves to stand as it is, because, in its current state, it's an effectively barbed satire of American morals and values. Who knows what damage might be done by tinkering with the final cut in the quest for the Holy Grail of an R? A blacker-than-black comedy that elicits equal parts horror and laughter, American Psycho ranks as one of the festival's stronger entries, and is deserving of the hype, the packed theaters, and the long waiting lines that have greeted its showing.

The world premiere was Friday night at the Eccles theater, when the 9:30 pm screening filled the 1270-seat venue to capacity, without an empty spot remaining in even the upper reaches of the balcony. Hundreds waiting in line were turned away. A similar scene was re-enacted the following morning, when the movie repeated at the much smaller Egyptian theater. On Sunday night, American Psycho moved to Trolley Square in Salt Lake City, where it was shown simultaneously in two houses. Both were packed to overflowing, and Standing Room Only patrons who were erroneously admitted had to be given a voucher for another festival screening.

First and foremost, the movie takes a scathing look at the "me first" mentality of the mid-to-late-'80s. In fact, one of the reasons the film works so well is because of a take no prisoners attitude. We are given a gallery of despicable, amoral characters to observe. Anyone who identifies with them needs to consider seeking immediate psychiatric help. The most disturbing of them all is Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a successful, wealthy commodities broker who believes himself to be untouchable and perhaps indestructible. Not content to destroy lives in the conventional manner embraced by his colleagues, Patrick has taken things one step further and become a serial killer. In fact, he has murdered so many times that he is losing track of the body count.

A crucial aspect of the movie's effective satire is the performance of Christian Bale, whose dead-on, straight man approach to the role gives American Psycho its punch. Looking, and at times acting, like Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Bale's cold, charismatic, misogynist turn as the 27 year old psycho is riveting. The supporting cast contains a number of familiar names - Reese Witherspoon as Patrick's superficial fiancée, Evelyn; Chloe Sevigny as his faithful secretary, Jean; and Willem Dafoe as a police detective.

In a voiceover, Patrick informs us that "There is no real me. I simply am not there." He sees himself as a facade - a perfectly sculpted body encompassing a black hole where his soul and conscience should be. "I have all the characteristics of a human being but not one discernible emotion except greed and disgust." He's a huge fan of pop music. Some of the film's creepiest and funniest scenes occur when he plays Huey Lewis and the News, Phil Collins, and Genesis as foreplay to violence. During sex, he spends as much time preening in front of a mirror as he does playing with the girl (or girls) he's with. And, when introducing himself at nightclubs, he claims to be in "murders and executions" not "mergers and acquisitions."

The aspect of '80s culture that gets the most thorough drubbing is the one-upsmanship of the businessman over his fellows. Harron manifests this in a number of ways throughout American Psycho -- in fact, the theme permeates the film. One memorable scene has four men showing off their business cards, with each of them trying to trump the others by presenting the nicest looking typeface or the most impressive card stock. Although this description may not sound amusing, the actual sequence is hilarious. It all comes down to execution. Harron captures the perfect tone for an enterprise like this and keeps things moving, with the momentum flagging only slightly during the final 15-20 minutes, when psychological tension supplants black comedy.

In the recent tradition of movies like Fight Club and The Sixth Sense, American Psycho employs a surprise ending. There is enough ambiguity about this that one can interpret it in more than one fashion, but the most likely choice forces the entire movie to be seen through a different lens. In retrospect, the film holds together no matter which approach you accept, without the seams showing.

American Psycho may be the most prominent Sundance offering to play mind games with the audience, but it certainly isn't the only one. A competition entry, Jon Shear's grim, dark Urbania toys around in the same arena. The movie isn't as adept as American Psycho when it comes to fooling audiences, but that's not its primary aim. This is a tale of love, loss, and the unending (and often futile) search for intimacy in a cold world. It is not a happy story by any stretch of the imagination.

The main storyline centers on Charlie (Dan Futterman), a gay man who has recently suffered through the traumatic end to a meaningful relationship. In the aftermath, Charlie is trying to find something to hang on to, so he spends much of his time in a sleazy dive, looking for the one particular individual with which he believes he has "a connection." Along the way, he experiences bizarre visions, some of which are flashbacks, some of which may be real, and some of which are the product of a grief-stricken and angry imagination. As the film unfolds, we gradually learn more about Charlie's history, but it isn't until the closing moments that everything snaps into focus.

While this material, which is competently handled by Shear, is interesting in its own right, the subplots are what elevate Urbania to a level that demands notice. The director cleverly entwines Charlie's plight with a series of urban legends - kidneys stolen from the body of a human host, a baby left on the hood of a car, a dog placed in a microwave oven, and a woman who has unprotected sex with a man to give him AIDS. Each of these becomes a thread in the background fabric of Shear's tapestry, and several are presented in such an offhand manner that it's as if the filmmaker is winking at his audience.

Dan Futterman, who is known primarily as a "light" actor (he's currently a regular in the TV series "Judging Amy"), gives a precise, credible performance as a man on the brink of an abyss. We're never quite sure whether or not Charlie is sane. He's our narrator, but he may not be reliable. Shear further muddies the water by presenting events in a non-chronological fashion. While the plot moves from point A to point B, it by no means makes that trip in a straight line. Along the way, gallows humor and a growing sense of doom serve to heighten the level of tension and suspense.

While American Psycho and Urbania represent the best kind of results that can occur when a screenplay toys with its audience's expectations, Waking the Dead offers exactly the opposite experience. This is one of those movies I deeply regret having placed on my film festival schedule - a wasted two hours that could have been spent seeing something else, writing another update, sleeping, or inserting needles under my fingernails. Of course, the program guide makes it sound marginally interesting - but Geoffrey Gilmore shamelessly embellishes every description he writes.

Not since enduring the travesty of Breakfast of Champions at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival have I been this disgusted with a festival feature. Waking the Dead is bad in just about every way that a movie can be bad. The acting is awkward and "off", the direction is dull and ineffective, the storyline is plodding, and the characters are dull. The chemistry between lead actors Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly fizzles when it should sizzle, causing us to openly disbelieve the deeply passionate relationship which lies at the heart of this misbegotten motion picture.

Waking the Dead takes place during two time periods: 1972-74 and 1982-83. In the first, we meet Fielding Pierce (Crudup), a young Coast Guard officer with political aspirations, and his girlfriend, Sarah Williams (Connelly), a social activist. Although Fielding and Sarah's politics don't always match - they're both liberals, but he believes in practicality while she's an idealist - their deep, abiding love enables them to get through the rough times. But the relationship is beginning to fray when Sarah is killed in a car bombing. Ten years later, Fielding is in the midst of a difficult Congressional campaign when he begins having visions of Sarah. But is this really her or is his overactive imagination conjuring up her image as a means of discovering the closure and catharsis he never truly experienced?

Ultimately, the real problem with Waking the Dead is that the story is told in such a fragmentary manner that it's difficult to become involved in the plot or to care about the characters. The '70s scenes fail to successfully set up the '80s sequences - even in its early days, the passionate affair between Fielding and Sarah feels forced. Likewise, Fielding's internal ethical struggles pitting values against political reality are unconvincing. Connelly and Crudup do not connect, and their performances are less-than-stellar. He seems to be whining all the time while she's going through the motions. All of this does not make for a compelling or interesting story, and I lost interest well before the halfway mark. In the end, I didn't care whether Sarah was dead or alive.

The supporting cast doesn't offer much help. Actually, beyond the two leads, no attempt is made to develop anyone, so the work of Molly Parker, Janet McTeer (sure to garner an Oscar nomination for her work in Tumbleweeds), and Hal Holbrook is wasted. Director Keith Gordon botches things at nearly every turn, taking a potentially involving core idea and transforming it into a wasteland of poor choices and ignored potential. Waking the Dead is scheduled to begin a theatrical run shortly - it's definitely a film to miss when it arrives in a multiplex near you.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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