Mike Gibson, in contributing to the Carry On Campaign, gave me one of the richest challenges I've ever been privileged to receive as a writer: to explain my dislike for a generally well-regarded movie in clear, thoughtful terms, engaging with it on an honest level, finding refuge in smart argument rather than dismissive snark. Oh, he didn't put it that way at all, but it's the least I can do in respect of the knowledge that he requested a review of one of his favorite movies even AFTER knowing that I really don't like it very much.
American Beauty holds a place of considerable privilege in my life as a cinephile. It was the first time that I can ever recall specifically, consciously Changing My Mind about a movie, which I particularly remember since it happened so damn fast. I saw the movie, in my senior year of high school, sometime in the last two weeks of March, 2000. I adored it. A few days later, it won the Best Picture Oscar,which, if my memory serves, we all knew that it was going to do, and I was totally psyched that just one year after Shakespeare in Love unforgivably beat The Thin Red Line (yes, I was that kid), I had reason to believe in the Academy Awards again. About two weeks later, I was talking about the film with a co-worker, and was stunned to realise, all of a sudden, that I didn't still adore American Beauty. In fact, I kind of hated it. All I could think of when I reflected upon it were the flaws. And that is how 18-year-old Timmy Brayton learned that sometimes movies which seem to be saying quite a lot may in fact be saying nothing at all, and that it does not do one tiny bit to let your first impression of a work of art be the one you carry around like an albatross all the rest of your days.
(Would that I could also say it was when I learned that the Academy likes to reward superficial treatments of Big Themes and that "Best Picture" is rarely accurate! That ship had sailed years earlier, though in 1999, you could still just spy it on the horizon. However, it does remain particularly galling that in arguable annus mirabilis of the past quarter-century of cinema, the two Oscars for screenwriting went to American Beauty and the immensely distasteful The Cider House Rules).
11 years and three viewings later, I'm as chilly towards the film as ever, though American Beauty has a curious way about it, wherein you can't really say anything surpassing negative about the film without making at least a handful of significant concessions. But let's not skip ahead too far.
The film, you may not know or you have have forgotten, follows several months - the last several months - in the life of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who lives with his realtor wife, Caroline (Annette Bening), and teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), in a suburb somewhere in America.* Lester, as he informs us in an opening monologue, is a profoundly unhappy person, and most of the film's two hours pursue his attempt to remind himself of feeling good, after years of increasingly sterile, sexless, materialistic existence in a high-paying job that he can't stand, in a house as prim as a store display, with two women who barely attempt to mask their contempt for him. His attempts to find meaning in life lead him to throw away his hated job, lust after Jane's friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), and hang out smoking expensive pot with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the weird kid next door who obsessively records everything he sees on MiniDV tapes. Everything. The teens get their own B-plot, which largely revolves around Jane learning slowly that the hyper-thoughtful Ricky, derided as a freak by everyone else, is actually kind of cool, and thereby taking the first steps toward establishing herself as an independent woman.
There are a number of micro-problems within American Beauty that all boil down to the same essential macro-problem: screenwriter Alan Ball has never interacted with another human being. Hold that, I pledged not to be snarky. The problem is that Ball's treatment of suburban Weltschmerz is cripplingly broad, with network-sitcom beats dressed in R-rated threads; that, and the characters tend not to act how people act.
"It's a satire!" is the obvious and not completely unmerited response to that claim, and in satire, even great satire, recognisable human behavior isn't necessarily a goal; no-one ever accused Dr. Strangelove of documentarylike realism. But in American Beauty, Ball clearly has his collection of characters that we're meant to take more seriously (though I do not get the feeling that we're meant to take anybody completely seriously), primarily Lester and Ricky, with Jane in a comfortably distant third place. They're meant to be "real" in a way that the gorgonlike Caroline cannot possibly be meant to be anything but a massive exaggeration of actual, living, breathing image-obsessed career women. And insofar as Lester is a more nuanced, rounded character, he is certainly not comparably to the smudgy cartoon he's married to - but he's also not nearly as human-like to deserve the privilege that the screenplay ladles out on him, particularly in a smug final monologue where Ball, without benefit of having died himself, explains for our benefit what happens after death, lines that might have worked if any actor had delivered them but Spacey, who despite his very real gifts as an actor has never been completely unable in any performance to hide the sense that his characters are certain they're smarter than everyone, including you, the viewer. It's far from certain that everything Lester approves of is the same as what American Beauty approves of, but generally speaking, the music he likes and the cars he likes and the wicked "fuck yous" he delivers are lovingly coddled and adopted by the movie.
Now, Lester is a flawed person: the film certainly doesn't go far enough as to suggest that his lust for Angela is anything but pathetic and sad. Ricky, though, now Ricky seems positively beatified, his hushed sermons on finding the beauty in the common and unexceptional (the source of the phrase "look closer" immortalised on what is, admittedly, a terrific poster) treated with a total lack of irony found nowhere else in the movie. When he goes on about his life philosophy, as he does in what is perhaps the film's most famous scene, Ricky and Jane watching Ricky's video of a plastic bag caught in the wind, it's unambiguously clear that Ball is, if not "identifying" with the teen as such, certainly paying great respect to the boy's philosophy.
There's no successful way to dispute those philosophies either, since the film has very craftily made sure than when a critic, e.g. me, makes the claim that everything Ricky describes is pot-addled juvenalia, the kind that sad teens make up on the spot to justify why they're the most precious of all God's little angels, we've already been answered by the film. "Oh, but that's just the point," Ricky might well tell us with that iceberg stare and pained smirk that is Bentley's sole acting trick, "you're so cynical and broken by a materialistic society." Fine then. I'll leave it to say that when I was myself a sad teen who often got down to philosophising on the spot to justify whatever sad teen crap was on my mind, more or less exactly Ricky's age when the movie came out, I was still able to spot Ball's bullshit as bullshit.†
This endorsement of a particularly adolescent male point of view - for Lester's every action is explicitly trying to restore his specifically teenage/college virility -would be annoying, but nothing more than that, if American Beauty wasn't so goddamned misogynist as well, and it's the film's treatment of women that really gets under my skin (and a lot of other people who dislike the film, I don't doubt). Caroline is presented, top to bottom, as a broken human being, and we're meant to find her caging of her husband and (to a lesser extent) daughter as the ultimate in social conformity and shallow materialism, and truth be told: I know the real life versions of Caroline, and I don't much like them. I'm not looking for the film to make her a sympathetic heroine, as such.
But there is just absolutely no getting around the snotty and apparently completely blind way that Caroline is made into a farcical villain while Lester is a tragicomic anti-hero. It's at its most unavoidable in a scene so monumentally imbalanced that it argues all by itself that Ball should never be allowed to write without a partner: Lester has just purchased a car. Caroline is aghast. He claims that he wanted it, it makes him feel good, and dammit, why shouldn't he be allowed to feel good. She drops it, they canoodle, and for the first time in ages look like they might be about to have sex, when- she worries that he'll spill beer on her sofa. Her $4000 sofa. Instantly, he launches into a speech about defining yourself by the things you own, that she is a defective person because she likes expensive, lifeless things, and it's absolutely obvious that we're getting a Moral Lesson - when American Beauty makes its Moral Lessons obvious, they are obvious. There has not been so much as a time-lapse dissolve between Lester crowing about his car and ridiculing Caroline's fetishistic love for furniture, and the only thing worse than the possibility that the filmmakers didn't notice this fundamental imbalance in the film's depiction of the "Right Kind" of materialism (masculine, cars, power, fast) and the "Wrong Kind" (feminine, domestic, decorative, fussy), is that they noticed and they did not care.
The script refuses to dig into Caroline; it suggests that she, like Lester, is fundamentally a soul in pain but instead of endorsing her pain mocks her for it; and it keeps doing this in a way that makes it seem, as though her womanhood is particularly to blame (the only other character so image-obsessed and so cruelly dismissed by the film is Angela; Peter Gallagher, in a small role as Caroline's competitor and then lover, almost makes a bid for the male version of same, but he's depicted more as an extension of Caroline than as a character in his own right). American Beauty is fundamentally uncomfortable with women, and it's especially nauseating because unlike, say, a gung-ho action movie, it doesn't even have the crassness to chortle about it.
In short: I have no use for the screenplay of American Beauty whatsoever, and I will cut myself off without mentioning its hectoring dismissal of Chris Cooper's tyrannical ex-Marine dad, the pandering treatment of homosexuality (though is it pandering if the writer is himself gay?), the clumsy use of Lolita as filigree, the structure (the last third of the movie is all about the much-foretold day that Lester dies, while the chronology of the first two-thirds is unexplained). This is long enough.
Instead, I'll come to the confession: for all that, I can't help but admire the movie, sort of. If we take as given that the script is what it is, then everyone involved has done a tremendously great job of making that script live: the actors, with two exceptions, generally give the characters exactly what is necessary for us to believe that they are people thinking the exact, highly artificial things they're meant to be thinking; and visually, it's as beautiful as any other movie from 1999. It's the congenital problem of director Sam Mendes's films that he makes no effort to rise above the script, instead realising it with the most overwhelming style possible (this was his cinematic debut), but such style! A shame that Caroline has to be such a mirthless travesty of characterisation: but how clever to always costume her to fade into the background of her well-appointed house, while Lester always clashes with it. Then there's Thomas Newman's clipped score, minimalist and driving, ironically commenting on the action and indulging its emotional outbursts, and the immaculately-timed cutting between close-ups and wide shots (and there are some breathtaking wide shots) that constantly emphasises and re-emphasises the conflict between the personal and the spatial - even as it surrounds them with painterly beauty, the film insists on making it clear that these characters live under glass. I've heard it rumoured that part of the reason Mendes always works with legendarily great cinematographers, starting with Conrad Hall here (also Roger Deakins and Ellen Kuras), is because he largely leaves the visual heavy-lifting to them, preferring instead to focus on the actors. I'm not going to say that's impossible, for American Beauty certainly bear the fingerprints of Conrad Hall like nobody's business.
Now, I said there are two exceptions to the actors being exactly what the script calls for: one of these is Thora Birch, who is incredibly stiff as Jane. Perhaps that is how teenagers are, and perhaps it is brilliant of Mendes to have left her so static and suffocated. But from the later evidence of Dungeons & Dragons, not to mention a subsequently arid career, I'm going to assume instead that Birch just can't damn act, and that what looks like a blank slate is, in fact, a blank slate.
The other performance is all the way 'round on the other side: Bening's Caroline is an act of character creation born of pure will, as the actress pulls depths out of the character not even found in outline in the script. I'm not Bening's biggest fan, and for years I'd been content to call this the first great statement of her "I'm an ice queen, and fuck you!" persona that would afflict most of her performances in the subsequent decade to one degree or another. And maybe it is, at that, but there's a lot to it beyond that, her genuinely frazzled delivery of some lines that, by rights, should be undeliverable (her treatment of "Excuse me, I must be psychotic, then!" deserves some kind of award for service above and beyond), and the way she lets little glimpses of Caroline's intense suffering - which, from the character's point of view, are only exacerbated by a fuckwit, irresponsible, spendthrift husband lusting after a teenager, audience identification be damned - peek through wherever the screenplay allows it. It's due almost solely to Bening's refusal to play her harpy character as a harpy that plot points such as her affair with Gallagher's real estate king function at all on any level besides sarcastic "that bitch!" carping.
I'd love to say that Bening gives the film's best performance; she doesn't, the script simply won't allow it. No, that's still probably Spacey, giving the closest he ever has to a completely effective performance, making Lester's most inexplicable actions seem reasonable from a certain point of view, while grounding even his most universal gestures in a corroded shell that never lets us forget how much frustration lies within this man. Even Cooper, who like Bening seems mostly not to care that he's playing a stereotype, probably gives a more sound performance than she does, which says a lot about the way American Beauty situates its males characters vs. its female ones.
Concluding thoughts, then: everything about the execution of American Beauty is perfect, in terms of giving fullest life to the screenplay's notions and themes. Or, if not "perfect" - what does that word mean, anyway? - then "damn satisfying". And yet those and notions are so very often half-assed and adolescent, the stuff of privileged upper middle class white males who can't stand the thought of having to be inconvenienced by anything ever; so frequently delivered with a snide self-satisfaction that would ruin them even if they weren't at their most faux-profound little better than you can hear on any given afternoon from a particularly literate stoner; is it fair to call the film "good" when it is the perfect execution of that? The person inside me who can never completely hate even the ghastliest film when it has sufficiently beautiful cinematography wants to say yes, it's totally fair; but the greater part of me has now seen American Beauty three times now, and two of those times I was left feeling irresistibly angry at the movie for how damn cool and smart and thoughtful it so palpably thinks itself. That's the farthest thing from beauty, even in the winking, ironic sense that the title means it.
NB: If you've ever paid much attention to my post tags, maybe you've noticed one called "art films for middlebrow people", which I use to describe that feeling I mentioned up top, when "movies which seem to be saying quite a lot may in fact be saying nothing at all"; perhaps you will enjoy knowing that I first used that phrase, before my blogging days, in discussing this very picture.