Published Jun 01, 2000It's pretty clear that the victim du jour of recent days has become the poor, dispossessed middle class male. Within the past year, at least three major films have come out trumpeting supposedly satirical takes on our sad state of affairs. Let's start with last year's big ideological winner, critical fave and audience stroker American Beauty. Once you take away Ricky Fitts and his floating plastic bag speech, all you're left with is a sitcom. With its wacky neighbours and dysfunctional-yet-loveable protagonist family, it's Everybody Loves Raymond - but with swearing and superstars and a message, so it's Unthreatening and Important!
But what's the message? If Lester (Kevin Spacey) is supposed to be the one with whom we boys share the greatest sympathy, then the lesson is: all that every poor, wife-berated, daughter-hated, low-self-esteem Lester/modern man needs is to reconnect with his inner teenager, is to say "fuck it" to every responsibility (familial, social and moral) he has and start thinking about himself for a change. Even his comeuppance comes not for this, but because neighbour Colonel Fitts can't just do what he wants. A satire is supposed to target a sick and corrosive element in a society, but American Beauty is just another California commercial for self-actualisation so go buy that vintage Camaro, you rebel, you! You deserve it!
At least David Fincher's Fight Club was cynical enough to know self-help groups are only good for self-worship and emotional fascism. Too bad it scared itself off just as it was getting interesting. Just as we were about to make the trip into real jackbooted fascism, just as Fincher et al. were starting to show us the end results of all that resentment and status quo ante fantasising we boys groove on so readily these days, comes the escape hatch: Ed Norton's just really crazy. Fight Club, as it turns out, isn't a cunning satire on the romanticised violence of modern male culture at all. Instead, it's a schizophrenic experiment, much like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, in giving over to the worst excesses of male aggression, only to turn around with a wagging finger to slap us (and itself) on the wrist for that very excess. Nothing pisses me off more than a movie that gives me one thing and then tells me I was bad for wanting, or even enjoying, it in the first place. That's not satire, that's just clumsy propaganda.
Thank god, then, for Mary Harron's American Psycho, which manages to look deep into the soul of the Alpha male world and expose, with vicious accuracy, a far more unnerving end result of unbridled masculine swagger than the last two apologias for male narcissism and resentment. Murderous Patrick Bateman may be the film's focus, but the real targets are the interchangeable Ken dolls at the top of the money-mad 80s Wall Street scene.
While the women drift in and out as mere appendages or receptacles, the men primp and preen as any good-looking, rich, driven and merciless peacocks deserve to. Here are some shining examples of the self-actualised, self-confident men the pop psychs bemoan are all but lost today. They have all the assuredness poor Lester Burnham struggles for, all the can-do aggressiveness Tyler Durden's "generation raised by women" supposedly lack. And they're the sorriest excuses for humanity you'll see this side of an NAAWP rally, too busy in their self-indulgences to notice how their culture of rigid conformity and blind avarice attracts and energises your average narcissistic sociopath.
Where the first two flicks tried to take on the question "What's a poor boy to do these days?" and came up with "Be true to you" and "Fight/No, don't fight!" respectively (yawn), American Psycho asks instead "What kind of boys actually make it to the top?" The answer's not pretty, but it's real satire. It bites and draws blood. It dares to point fingers and name names. And it'll probably do the worst box office of all three, another marker sadly indicative of true satire. Who likes to get told how fucked up they are?
Maybe it took a woman to get the distance necessary to make a truly biting satire about men and their egos. The male directors of American Beauty and Fight Club are obviously too enamoured with their heroes to take any real shots at them. But if you feel pumped and ready for a swift, well-aimed kick in the nuts, let American Psycho show you what lurks at the dark heart of the Male Power Fantasy. Will it make you feel any better about the masculine mystique? Nope. What's the matter, pantywaist? Can't take it like a Man?