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Laramie Movie Scope:
American Beauty, Morality and Happiness

Hollywood pushes the morality envelope further

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 5, 1999 -- A couple of recent films, "Happiness" (1998) and "American Beauty" 1999 are both movies preoccupied with sex, including homosexuality, which makes them, almost by definition, art films, and therefore beloved of critics who like those kinds of films. Hence, we get the blather about "American Beauty" being a "Masterpiece" and the "Best Film of the Year." Give me a break. That's like the Golden Globe award going to stone-faced David Duchovny over Dennis Franz.

I think "Happiness" is a much better film and is a lot more daring (O.K., if you want a superior film made this year how about "Fight Club"?). While "American Beauty" preaches standard Hollywood social values and doles out superficial social criticisms that date back 50 years, "Happiness" does not preach at all, it simply tells a number of complicated, interwoven stories, and tells them very well. In the process of telling these stories it produces bizarre characters who seem a lot more real than the "ordinary" people in "American Beauty."

The unmerciful portrayal of a nuclear family than has gone super-critical, the vacuous, superficial, materialistic lives of suburbanites, these are not the new ideas some would have you believe. These are the exact same themes raised in the late 1940's and early 1950s by social critics, and those themes have been repeated continuously to the present. In fact, aside from the drugs, the Burnham family in "American Beauty" are like dark versions of "Ozzie and Harriet" or "Father Knows Best," or heh, heh, heh, "Leave it to Beaver."

There are some new ideas, however, and I don't mean the old saw about the most violently homophobic people being latent homosexuals themselves. "American Beauty" is also that rare American film that abandons the war on drugs and openly endorses drug use as a way to enhance a person's physique and sex life. That definitely sets it apart from the crowd. Also, the boob count is higher than it is in most movies about the meaning of existence. In those instances, it does push the morality envelope.

"Happiness" on the other hand, does not preach, it merely shows us human sexual folly in many facets rather than resorting to off-screen narration to lecture the audience that despite appearances this film has some sort of societal and spiritual meaning. It is a much more complex film with many more characters, but it gets the message across better than "American Beauty" did.

"Happiness" also has the guts to follow the argument for the morality of homosexuality to its logical conclusion, and that is to predatory child molestation, which is really pushing the morality envelope. One of the main characters of the film drugs young boys and then rapes them. In an amazing sequence, he talks to his son, who is about the same age as one of his victims, about the satisfaction he gets from having sex with young boys. He says it does satisfy him. His son asks if he would have sex with him and his father says "no." This is point at which the audience goes "eeeeew" in disgust. It is a good question, though, and a poignant one. Does the father's answer to the son's question mean that the father loves him or that he doesn't? It depends entirely on what you consider to be the true meaning of what is sometimes described as the act of making love. The movie takes no position one way or the other on the question. Members of the Man-Boy Love Association might have their own take on it.

"American Beauty" deals with the issue of homosexuality as a plot convenience and as a way of preaching the standard Hollywood line, that those who believe homosexuality is immoral are, themselves, evil incarnate. It uses elaborate plot manipulations to force a very unlikely outcome. This is not convincing and does not prove the point it is supposed to, but it does prove that a kiss isn't always just a kiss. When it comes to sex, "American Beauty" treats it in the standard Hollywood fashion. It is almost chaste compared to "Happiness," despite revealing more nipples.

One point made by both films is that unlike in most movies where sex is seen as the solution, the ultimate goal, of all relationships, sex is an unsatisfactory or unnecessary solution for the characters in these films. For instance the romance between Ricky Fitts and Jane Burnham in "American Beauty" would, in most Hollywood movies, be consummated with casual sex, but in "American Beauty," the young lovers actually take time to get to know each other, although their future plans are both hilarious and tragic. The other characters in the film pursue, but do not attain sexual relationships. This is also true of many characters in "Happiness," where there are a variety of one night stands and failed relationships and one woman who would rather kill than have sex. The great love scene with Ben Gazzara in "Happiness" is quite devastating when he says, in the middle of what seem to be the throes of passion, "I Feel Nothing." The search for happiness continues endlessly in American cinema as people turn from materialism to sex to drugs and back as their only options. Not much imagination there. Nobody thought to mention spirituality, of course.

The message of "American Beauty" seems to be that great beauty can inspire a man to re-invent himself, to start over. It can kick-start him and pump new life into him, get him out his meaningless rut of existence. Too bad this rosy vision is scrambled by an ending that opts for a quick way out without confronting those issues. The film's attempt to look at the "big picture" of existence from the standpoint of death is about as unrewarding as trying to find the meaning of life by looking at the Grand Canyon. At least, in the case of "Grand Canyon" there is something pretty and inspiring to look at.

"American Beauty" also has a slight anti-materialistic message thrown in, but if the supposedly rebellious Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) can afford $1,000 or more for an ounce of marijuana, it weakens his purported anti-materialistic stance. "American Beauty" seems to straddle the fence on the sex and materialism issue. Burnham pulls a Timothy Leary. He tunes in and drops out, taking a job with the least amount of responsibility he can find, flipping burgers at a fast food place. But he also has a nice severance package to fall back on. He's making more money, but working less for it. It's a clever, darkly comic, maneuver, but not a real confrontation of the issue. For a real look at this issue, rent "The New Age," or "Lost in America," they aren't very good movies, but they do confront the issue head-on.

Burnham wants to reassess his life and to make a new start, or at least turn the clock back to an earlier time in his life. What is depicted, however, is a mere mid-life crisis, a man surrounding himself with the props of an earlier, happier time. Nothing could be more clichéd in portraying such a crisis than purchasing a red sports car, which he does. After years of being ignored, he demands to be heard, but he doesn't have anything to say. His introspection seems to lead nowhere, but maybe he doesn't have to go anywhere. Perhaps he has attained a sort of Buddhist enlightenment which tells him he will find peace by the very act of ending his striving for happiness. It would have been interesting if the movie had gotten that message across, but that requires more groundwork.

"Happiness" is far less pretentious and far more bleak, dark, and funny. It offers no hope of happiness in either sex or material goods, or any combination of the two. It simply shows us characters and their problems. It offers no analysis, no solutions, only devastatingly funny and heartbreakingly straightforward insights. That is what is lacking in "American Beauty."

Thanks to Kevin Spacey's wonderful performance, we have a good portrayal of his mid-life crisis, but none of the other characters seemed real to me. The film attempts to have it both ways, without succeeding either way. It shows us the emptiness of middle class life in a shattered family, but then tries to give us some hope of redemption at the end with a promise of a rosy love story and dreams of a new life.

Of course, Kevin Spacey's character finds out that what seems to be rosy at the beginning often isn't. A romance in New York as a drug dealing couple might well be quite brief, for a variety of reasons. The film lacks the guts to go all the way in its portrayal of these shattered and hopeless relationships, while "Happiness" puts the pedal to the metal. "American Beauty attempts to provide some context and meaning to its story with narration, but it doesn't work. I suspect that if you have to resort to narration to try to explain the real meaning of a film, the film has already failed.

My review of "American Beauty" can be found here.

Click here for links to places to buy these movies 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. 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]

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