Writers & Directors: Lars von Trier and James Franco; Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis and the musical by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; Cast: James Franco, Kerry Washington, and Kim Kardashian
How many different versions can one story handle? Occasionally, you might get three: like Les Miserables (from book to musical to movie musical), or four, as with Hairspray and The Producers (movie to musical and back to movie version of the musical.)
However, no modern work, to my memory, has seen quite as many adaptations as the just-released American Psycho: The Musical, which arrives as the fifth incarnation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel.
The current version endured a treacherous ride on the way to the silver screen. The director originally slated to helm, Lars von Trier, allegedly had a grand, operatic version with little humor and a lot of female suffering. His caustic reputation notwithstanding, it’s hard to believe the rumor that, midway through shooting and frustrated by the lack of control he had over cast and crew, he showed up on set one day in full Nazi-regalia and fake Hitler-stash. Hard to imagine, except that, if the film is to be believed, someone kept the camera rolling–the whole scene remains intact in the movie.
Not since that infamous moment in Norman Mailer’s Maidstone, when actor Rip Torn really attacked the director with a hammer have we been treated to such a meta-moment of real-life drama within a fictional film. Lars von Trier enters a scene in his aforementioned führer get-up, screaming at James Franco (Patrick Bateman) in some German-accented gibberish. Franco, employing his usual method technique, fights back with equal vigor, eventually wrestling Lars to the ground, and giving him a good foot-stomping. Cast & crew applaud. Franco exclaims: “Get the hell off my set, you Danish Nazi Prick!” accentuating his point by spitting in the director’s face.
“Your set?” von Trier says, wiping his cheek with a sleeve.“This is my set,”
“Not anymore,” Franco says with a menacing glare into the camera.
Many have already speculated that the whole scene, if not the film, is just another Franco performance art stunt, like his appearances in General Hospital as a sinister version of himself. Whether this moment was real or just brilliant fakery belies the essential point–it’s thematically accurate. In the tale of a narcissist prone to bouts of murderous fantasies, why wouldn’t Patrick Bateman bring down the director and take over the film himself?
One would think that little could top the scene in the original film, when Christian Bale, in the middle of a ménage a trois with two blondes, admires only himself in the floor-length mirror. Now we have a new, indelible image: Franco directing himself in the same scene while admiring himself in both the mirror and the monitor, all while belting out an earnest rendition of Huey Lewis’s The Power of Love.
Musically, the premise is not as far-fetched as one might initially suspect. Bret Easton Ellis, in the original novel, spent entire chapters waxing pseudo-philosophical about the sociopathic pleasures of insipid eighties music from the likes of Huey Lewis, Phil Collins, and George Michael, et al., the bland-white-man crooners. Many of these songs have already managed to gain a nostalgic, ironic admiration from kids barely born in the eighties, a privilege I somehow doubt will ever be afforded to similar nineties acts (can’t imagine the same hipster reverence given to Dave Matthews or Creed, for instance).
So the audience is primed for this saccharine eighties meta-trip, but can the already-fractured narrative withstand it? Yes and no.
Some key moments are indelible. I would put money down that the famous fill at the center of “In the Air Tonight,” the so-called “magic break,” when the drums finally drop, is by far the most air-drummed sequence in the history of popular music. In the film, the song is a slow, tension-filled blow-job sequence, mostly on Franco’s face (as usual). Just as he orgasms, Franco lifts an ax in the air, and, as the drums kick in, down he swings, beheading a hooker.
Other times, the referencing just feels like overkill. A prolonged sequence involving Bateman wielding a chainsaw and chasing around two women in a graveyard, set to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” may at first be, yes, thrilling, but once the ghouls come out and begin that infamous undead dance sequence, it feels more like gratuitous pandering than penetrating satire.
Perhaps the film’s desire to throw in everything including the kitchen sink may be its biggest flaw. Fans of epic musical numbers? The opening sequence of singing stockbrokers on Wall Street set to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” is suitably sprawling enough to almost forget the fact that it was originally written for a Rocky movie. Like excessive violence? Try the claw-hammer disemboweling number, with a head-scratching and still hilarious version of “Material Girl” aptly sung by Kim Kardashian, until her guts are literally spilled. Like Franco’s face? He literally stares the audience down in every other frame of this film.
I’ll give the Kardashian scene extra points for being shot entirely on handheld from Franco’s POV, as though we’re watching a true celebrity sex tape.
The primary question remains: is there a deeper point being made here, other than, say, that popular culture has become a facsimile of a facsimile, or that total originality is dead, and all we can do is recycle and remix, like life as an iTunes shuffle? Or is gratuity part of the point, just as the violence of the original novel was intended to shock us into a state of numbness, mirroring Bateman’s relative passivity at the atrocities he was inflicting (at least, in his mind).
I’m tempted to believe this theory gives more credit to what’s often a vehicle for showcasing violence as entertainment, if not for one notable sequence. The song is Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” The original tune rode the line between moving and saccharine, but here, stripped of all the trappings of the cheesy eighties production and Houston’s impressive but over-wrought belting, the song becomes a lovely duet sung by Franco and a very pregnant Kerry Washington, with just a simple acoustic guitar and piano backing. Beyond the oft-satirized opening about believing the children are our future, the rest of the song takes on a satirical edge, one that re-frames the lyrics in the self-centered individualism that the eighties were known for:
Everybody’s searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs
A lonely place to be
And so I learned to depend on me
The song begins with two voices, giving rise to the hope of redemption via love, but ends with Franco’s lone voice, crying out to the darkness within and without, while gripping the fetus he’s just carved out of his dead lover’s womb.
Whether this moment moves you all depends on your tolerance for graphic depictions of grisly abortions, but one cannot doubt the real tears that shed from Franco’s eyes as he clutches his now-dead offspring, the ultimate, Caligula-esque act of self-preservation, his gaze slowly turning back to the camera, indicting us in the crime for watching the whole thing happen.
But then Franco (or was it Lars all along?) goes and drags the point through the ringer in the next scene, in which Bateman throws a fancy dinner party and cooks the fetus in a rosemary wine sauce. As they get all Silence of the Lambs and chow down on the crispy baby bits, I wanted to scream at the screen: We get it, guys!
And then the party bursts into a rousing rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” and all the previous Bateman victims float down from the sky (including von Trier), singing and playing along on handheld harps.
I couldn’t help but sing right along.
Eric Layer was recently awarded the Mark Fellowship at PEN Center USA. Previously, he had been a 2011 Emerging Voices Fellow, which included a mentorship with writer Jerry Stahl. He has also received residency fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, and Foundation Obras in Portugal. His stories have been featured in The Rattling Wall, Palehouse, Penny-Ante, and The Medulla Review. He is currently working on his first novel, entitled All Roads Lead to Fresno.