Paul Allen unveiling his business card (and yes that is a young Jared Leto)
Mary Harron’s American Psycho is a brutal and bizarre horror or comedy or horror-comedy film depending on your point of view. There are numerous startling scenes of violence but perhaps the most famous scene is the “Business Card Scene”, in which there is no violence whatsoever.
What’s Going On?
A group of handsome men in their 20s and 30s sit around a conference table, they look well-off and successful, dressed in a variety of expensive if dull suits. We hear voiceover narration from Patrick Bateman, the main character and amoral murderer. The small talk is all of getting reservations at fancy restaurants, where they bought their suits and “accounts” – that shibboleth of American tv and film business people. There is a brief interaction between Bateman and Paul Allen and it transpires Allen has confused Bateman for another one of their colleagues – which is of great importance later in the film. After Allen leaves there begins a comparison of business cards (which are naturally kept in little metal cases). The discussion around the right shade of white for the card, the font of the lettering, the paper stock used is excruciating. Bateman recoils as some of these executives seem to prefer other cards to his own and when Allen’s card is presented Bateman comes close to a breakdown.
Christian Bale might have peaked with this performance as he is perfect in this film. In this scene, Bateman’s prickly and fragile ego is on display as someone daring to touch his suit or prefer another business card can possibly send him over the edge. The expressions on Bale’s face range from incredibly insincere smiling to barely contained anger to a terrifyingly blank intensity. The rest of the cast does very well in that they care about these things but clearly not as much as Bateman. When talking to Allen, Bateman’s narration explains how he’s confused him for another executive as they have similar style and appearance but there is a certain similarity with all of these men.
They’re All Awful But One Is More Awful
The book American Psycho was released in 1991 and the film adaptation was released in 2000 and certainly captured a certain type of person. The 90s were a period of prosperity for America, the Cold War won and they were running the world. These people are one of the products of that prosperity – they are shallow, greedy and vain, full of their own self-importance and entitlement (but living in the incredibly delicate state when the presentation is more important than substance in that it is so easily destroyed). The fact that Allen got a reservation at a fancy restaurant needles everyone in the room as it suggests he is more important than them. It’s hard to imagine something more pointless and self-congratulatory than comparing business cards, and of course, to most people, they look exactly the same. They run through the different shades of white – bone, eggshell, pale nimbus – when for virtually everyone else they would assume they were all the same. Allen’s card is described by Bateman as having a “tasteful thickness” to it and the difference between tasteful and tacky would surely be measured in millimetres. It’s easy to picture the months-long design process between these obsessed executives and poor designers and publishers, where they were harangued for not having the right thickness of paper. You also imagine that if we followed all of these characters as they left the room as each one would be calling their printer so they could outdo their rivals.
I find all the characters repellent and you forget that while they may all be superficial Bateman is the only one murdering people. Obviously in any chart ranking their awfulness Bateman is in a different category and one very much far away from the rest of them.
The best feature of all might be that all of the cards say they are a Vice-President and you can’t help wonder just how many Vice-Presidents they have in the company? Perhaps this explains why the virtually indistinguishable details of the cards are so important to them, in the hierarchy they’re all the same, and this is a way to be the best.
The presentation of the cards themselves is fantastic. As Allen hands over his card, the cinematography and score would suggest this is Most Important Thing In The World. The One ring, the Death Star plans, Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase are nothing compared to this card. Each one is produced with a magician’s flourish and there is something reminiscent of a knight drawing a sword.
American Psycho has always been a cult film but has achieved the ultimate twin cultural achievements of being a meme and parody youtube video. Bateman looking at Allen’s card with his horrified expression is a popular meme, where the card will be substituted for some other shocking item or piece of information. I’ve seen many videos where what is being compared is not business cards, but cats, or Pokemon.
That image of these executives has also become a shorthand for a type of shallow, probably incompetent, business-pretentious executive; a certain President’s children and their own style has often been compared to the executives in this scene. When Bale went on to play Batman whenever he was in Bruce Wayne’s business attire it was hard not to be reminded of Patrick Bateman.
Also Read: American Psycho: 19 Years On