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Laramie Movie Scope:
American Beauty

Angst and homophobia and suburbia

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 26, 1999, revised periodically through March 5, 2002 -- "American Beauty" is a black comedy about the hollowness of the American dream that purports to give deep insight into suburban angst, but in fact is no more penetrating than its didactic counterpart, "Grand Canyon." It is, instead, a film that reveals the moral and intellectual bankruptsy of Hollywood itself. This movie isn't insightful, daring (except for the magnitude of its hypocrisy) or original, but it does have one great performance.

Kevin Spacey ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and "L.A. Confidential") plays the middle class Lester Burnham, a magazine writer who feels he may die before ever getting around to living. In fact, we learn at the very beginning of the film that he will die soon. The only problem with that is he doesn't just die. He keeps on talking, droning on and on about the meaning of life. It is quite tiresome, trite, and in the end, pointless.

Burnham is quite willing to drift along in his empty life until he sees a beautiful young high school girl, Angela Hayes, (Mena Suvari of "American Pie"). The sudden awakening of lust in his body seems to wake him up and send him spinning into a typical mid-life crisis. He has rosy dreams of the girl. He even buys a red sports car, the ultimate mid-life crisis cliché. His other inspiration is the young drug dealer next door, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley of "Beloved").

Inspired by the way Ricky Fitts quits his job, and also inspired by the high-quality marijuana that he sells, Burnham also quits his job. He starts working out, hoping to score with the beautiful Hayes girl. The prospect of this coupling disgusts his daughter, Jane, (Thora Birch), who for some unknown reason, thinks her enormous breasts are too small (by the way, the boob count in this movie is four, and I mean boobs in more than one sense). Jane quite justifiably hates her father because he has stopped being an adult. He has reverted back to adolesence. He is concerned only with himself.

But these people are all fairly normal compared to Burnham's over-the-top Realtor wife, Carolyn, (Annette Bening "The Siege" and "Mars Attacks!"). Carolyn is so hysterically off the wall that she appears to be in danger of becoming a psycho killer. She's like the bride of Frankenstein, or a wacky combination of June Cleaver and Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction." She would seem normal only by Hollywood standards.

This film also touches more than a little on one of Hollywood's favorite themes, homosexuality. We get the standard cliché that homosexuals are kind and intelligent and those who have moral objections to them are narrow-minded bigots. This movie even makes the case more extreme than that. This will surely touch a nerve with people in Laramie because of the fallout after the Matthew Shepard murder which was loaded with similar deep thoughts. Ah, but Hollywood will embrace it. An Academy Award nomination is almost a sure thing.

Aside from all this preaching and superficial analysis, we have superimposed the notion of determinism because of the way the film announces right away that Burnham is going to die. Determinism, or predestination, seems to be a popular notion these days, but this film seems to play both sides of the issue. It shows how Burnham does take control of his own life, at least for a little while. The idea of opposing conformity and rejecting materialism, is, of course, the same theme found in many books and movies of the 1950s. Maybe the 1990s are a lot like the 1950s, as some social commentators believe.

One of those commentators, James Gilbert, author of "A Cycle of Outrage," proposes that similar criticisms of the 1950s, in books like "A Catcher in the Rye," were overly critical of that period. This film is overly critical of the current time in the same way. This is really a worn-out idea which some critics have mislabeled as "fresh." This film, like those critiques of old, also has the same worship of individuality (or at least selfishness) and the same lack of any kind of civil ethic. It doesn't really attack materialism, however, because everyone in the film is quite wealthy.

Part of the problem is that Hollywood is so different from the rest of the country, but it longs to be accepted as normal. The idea of corruption under the surface ("look closer") is evident in just about any David Lynch film. Take a look at the memorable opening shot of "Blue Velvet." This misconception is succinctly summed up by David Brooks in his sociological article, "One Nation, Slightly Divisible." The Atlantic Monthly article about the divide between liberal and conservative territories in America inevitably mentions the great left wing bastion of Hollywood. Brooks writes: "Franklin County is probably a bit more wholesome than most suburbs in Blue America. (The notion that deviance and corruption lie underneath the seeming conformism of suburban middle-class life, popular in Hollywood and in creative-writing workshops, is largely nonsense.)" American Beauty is filled with such nonsense, and the fact the popular misconception is presented with convinction does not make it valid. As critic Pauline Kael pointed out, American Beauty tells liberals exactly what they want to hear. Small wonder they believe it.

Is there a moral to the story? Maybe not, aside from "seize the day." One of the most perplexing scenes in the movie has to do with a plastic bag floating in the air, caught in a vortex. This is promoted as beautiful simply by having a character saying it is beautiful, over and over again, in a kind of mantra. This is nonsense. Nobody would be gullible enough to believe a thing is beautiful just because someone tells you it is, would they? Evidently, that is all it takes. Maybe they would if they grew up watching television instead of reading books and learning to think for themselves. For more on the supposedly "uplifting" insight of "American Beauty," take a look at this penetrating essay American Beauty deflowered by Patton Dodd.

The real moral of the film goes something like this: if you can't find happiness in sex, drugs or money, maybe there is no happiness. The idea of spirituality never comes up. The film perhaps inadvertently demonstrates two of Mahatma Ghandi's "seven blunders that lead to violence," wealth without work and pleasure without conscience, and, sure enough, violence results. Some people have said they find this movie uplifting. There was only one happy couple in the film and they were on screen for only a few seconds, everyone else is utterly doomed. How is that uplifting?

There is one daring thing about this film. It openly endorses drug use. The hero of the film is a pot-smoker and the film's most self-assured, emotionally-stable and (ostensibly) admirable character is a drug dealer. With the national war on drugs continuing on for what seems to be an eternity, the film industry apparently has gotten tired of being asked to "just say no." Of course not all pro-drug forces are liberal Hollywood types. There have been some notable conservatives, like William Buckley, who have questioned the wisdom of a policy that has filled prisons to overflowing, yet has made the drug trade more profitable than ever.

Spacey, an academy award winner, gives a very subdued and subtle performance that carries the whole film. In fact, he's the only believable character in the whole film. Everyone else is a caricature, especially Annette Bening's way over-the-top mad woman act. One of the best supporting performances is by Chris Cooper (of "October Sky") as Colonel Fitts, a deeply troubled man. Also good, but not believable, are Thora Birch and Wes Bentley (who, with his preoccupation with videotaping everything, is obviously the filmmaker's alter-ego).

First-time director Sam Mendes does a good job with the actors and the rosy dream sequences (with rose petals from American Beauty roses). Overall, I think the film is interesting, and every middle-aged man can identify with Kevin Spacey's fine performance of mid-life crisis, but it seemed to run way too long. I also couldn't buy the straw man arguments it set up and knocked down. The early, juicy, parts of the film were very funny, before it turned to bitter, preachy, and utterly misguided sap at the end.

I drove over a hundred miles to see this film and it made me physically ill. Not so much the film, I guess, as the audience's reaction to it. I was sickened to note from the way the "American Beauty" audience (and most critics) reacted that they did not notice that Lester Burnham is not the "average" guy he is supposed to be, his retreat into adolescence is not the bold step forward it appears to be on the surface, and that, it is not a movie about middle class Americans living in the suburbs it pretends to be. It is really about the wealthiest movers and shakers in Hollywood wanting to be accepted as good people (without giving up their money or doing anything responsible with all their power). It is a movie which boldly says (and I'm just loosely paraphrasing here), "Hey, we may be a bunch of corrupt, drug-using, faithless, philandering, child molesting, godless creeps, but so are lots of you, and this movie proves it." The audiences, the critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bought it, hook, line and sinker. Amazing. After seeing this movie several times, I decided the film should be rated a B, rather than a C, as I originally thought. If you don't take it too seriously, it is a pretty funny film. Chill.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. I have links to American as well as European vendors. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 1999 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)