American Psycho wasn’t the only comedy released in 2000 about a murdering rapist who suffers from delusions of grandeur while fearing deep down that no one even notices him. But whereas American Psycho was a modest indie hit and an enduring critical favorite, Hollow Man was a $95 million flop attracting near universal derision from reviewers, including the New York Times’s rookie chief critic, A.O. Scott. (Metacritic assigns the film a score of 24 out of 100, while Rotten Tomatoes rates it at a whopping 27 percent.)
Hollow Man’s failure marked the end of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s astonishing run in Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s—a period in which he made in succession Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers. The first two were immediate unmitigated hits. The latter three were hostilely received upon their initial release (though Basic Instinct at least made money). But in the years since they have all aged into beloved cult classics. And yet there’s been no such reclamation for Hollow Man, which earlier this month took another kick to the shins from the L’s own Paul Brunick, who actually used the movie as his punchline. With the film’s tenth anniversary approaching—and with IFC screening it this weekend—it’s worth considering why, among all of Verhoeven’s Hollywood pictures, Hollow Man is uniquely reviled.
It’s obvious now, though it may not have been in 2000, just how aggressively up-to-date Verhoeven’s last American picture really was. In notable contrast to American Psycho, a 1980s period piece, Hollow Man unfolds in the present—which then meant the waning days of Bill Clinton’s Washington, D.C., where mad scientist Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) is working on a formula, for the Pentagon, that can make a human being disappear.
We first see Sebastian burning the midnight oil at his home computer, with the living room television turned to Jay Leno. Listen carefully and you can hear the once (and future) Tonight Show host cracking wise about “vultures” being “attracted to heat.” Leno’s talking about a nature program he saw, but he could as easily been making another dirty joke about Clinton and Monica Lewinsky—the kind of joke, in fact, the comedian had been making nightly throughout 1998 and 1999. Call this detail a coincidence if you must, but note that Verhoeven’s protagonist, not unlike the former POTUS, is an unrepentant horndog.
That summer the nation was feeling libido fatigue (recall Naomi Wolf dressing Al Gore in earth tones, lest he seem too masculine) but here was Verhoeven sticking it to us again with his sleaziest creation yet, a monster of id. In his review of Hollow Man, the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman pointed out that the film was an uncredited remake of James Whale’s Invisible Man (1934), and that anyone who had seen that movie or read the H.G. Wells source novel should have known already that “invisibility does not improve personality.” And yet a common complaint about Hollow Man has been that it lacks character development or dramatic intrigue, precisely because Sebastian is already a sexually-harrassing, Porsche-driving douchebag even before he gains the power of invisibility and uses it to assault women. In that early scene where he’s working at home, for example, Sebastian spies, a la Rear Window, on an unsuspecting neighbor he will rape once invisible. But isn’t it possible that Sebastian’s pre-existing worminess represents the movie’s greatest provocation? For in giving us a protagonist we would never want to identify with, Verhoeven is implicitly daring us to deny our own kinks. No wonder one critic felt compelled to say that there’s nothing wrong with a little voyeurism, even as he wrote that the “sexual side of [Hollow Man] is especially ugly.”
The supporting cast, led by underlings Elisabeth Shue and a yet-to-blossom Josh Brolin, aren’t given anything to do beyond expressing their disgust at their boss’s inappropriate behavior. But that’s no matter—this is Bacon’s movie. The actor makes for one helluva creep, managing to seem threatening even after he tests the invisibility solution on himself and we can no longer see him except as a floating pink rubber mask. The resemblance of that mask to fetish gear, and also to a condom, is another coincidence, I’m sure. But then again watching Hollow Man is a lot like reading the Starr Report: it’s impossible to get your mind out of the gutter.
In its last half hour, Hollow Man runs out of ideas, succumbing to slasher clichés and an unnecessarily prolonged final scene. The movie was shot largely in sequence, according to Bacon, and it’s as if, nearing the end of production, Verhoeven had finally reached the limits of what he could do artistically in Hollywood, and gave up. (Going back to his native Holland was obviously the right choice for the director, who has since made another masterpiece, Black Book.) Still, for most of its runtime, Hollow Man is much better than has been remembered—wickedly funny, unsettling, and considerably more insightful about the state of the nation at the time than anyone has been willing to admit. Think of it as a mirror held up to that era’s Puritanism. Looking into it, in 2000, American audiences thought they saw nothing, when perhaps instead, like Bacon’s prisoner of sex, they saw themselves hollowed out.