This week I had an inadvertent Mary Harron film festival, because I rented The Notorious Bettie Page and American Psycho without realizing they were both by the same director.
You can understand my confusion — one’s a biography about a 50s pin-up star, and the other’s a horror/black comedy adaptation of a satirical novel about yuppies. But when you look at them back-to-back, especially when you combine them with the only other Mary Harron movie I’ve seen, I Shot Andy Warhol, you can see an oeuvre developing. They’ve got a lot in common: they’re all period pieces, they’re all driven completely by the stand-out performance of a lead actor (Gretchen Mol, Christian Bale, and Lili Taylor), they all show a pretty antagonistic relationship between men and women, and they’re all ultimately unsatisfying for reasons that are kind of hard to define, exactly.
My first reaction after seeing Bettie Page and American Psycho was that Harron has what I call the “Drew Carey Syndrome.” That’s when you’re hip enough to be able to recognize what’s cool — Carey was a fan of The Sims back when it was still fairly esoteric, and he recognized the potential of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and its stars and brought them to popularity in the US — but everything you put out yourself is just kind of… there.
But that seems like too harsh a criticism. I have a hard time finding fault with either Bettie Page or American Psycho — they’re technically well-made, the scripts are fairly solid and well-paced and competent, the period touches are dead-on accurate without being overbearing, there are plenty of clever visual touches that keep the movie interesting, the casting is perfect and the leads are given the opportunity to totally take over the part, and as you go through you get the feeling that Harron made all the right choices.
Still, at the end of each I was left thinking, “how has my life been improved by watching this movie?” And I couldn’t come up with anything. The Notorious Bettie Page ends up feeling just like a standard biopic, with (welcomed) nudity and some interesting visual touches thrown in. It felt like a performance — a great performance, but still without the feeling that I got closer to understanding or relating to a real person.
And American Psycho is more broadly a satire/black comedy, so you’re not really supposed to relate to the main character. But it still feels “off.” Maybe it’s in the subject matter; you get the real sense that Harron worked hard to keep the 80s references from being too obvious or heavy-handed, but she was too constrained by the book and was forced to keep that material in there. Mocking yuppies, and Huey Lewis and Whitney Houston, might’ve seemed fresh in 1991, but by 2000 it just seems so dated as to be irrelevant.
American Psycho works the best of the three I’ve seen, because it ends with some ambiguity and forces you to think a little about what you’ve just seen. Of course, I did have to watch the ending again with the commentary on, to make sure that the ambiguity was intentional, but then that’s what the commentary is for.
The thing is that I really want to like Harron’s movies a lot better than I do, because of all the stuff she gets right. As I said, all the technical stuff she gets dead-on right. And the performances from Gretchen Mol and Christian Bale are about as perfect as you can get. And the choice of subject matter is interesting, and the take on it is uncompromising. All of the movies portray women as people, with their own motivations and their own independent life stories, instead of just defining them by how they relate to men. Considering she was able to convey that viewpoint even in the on-the-surface-misogynistic American Psycho, that’s pretty impressive.
So it’s remarkable that any of those movies were ever made, and that they managed to come out as strong as they did. I just wish I liked them better.