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Thoughts on American Beauty

This is not a review; Savant hasn't seen the DVD.

American Beauty, the winner for Best Picture, was last fall's must-see theatrical release and is now a hotly desired DVD purchase. It's received many glowing reviews and a few negative ones. Savant didn't care for the film, but not in any outraged way. Rather, he has some reservations about the movie that he hasn't seen expressed anywhere, that immediately impacted him. So let's give it a go.

The movie is beautifully directed, acted and especially well photographed. Kevin Spacey's achievement in creating a character with an overwhelmingly negative attitude toward most everything in his life is not to be sniffed at, even if Savant suspects it wasn't much of a stretch for this 'natural' actor with so much old-fashioned star quality.

But practically everything else in the movie rubs Savant the wrong way. And not out of simple personal preferences. I wanted to like American Beauty. L.A. Confidential is one of the best pictures I've seen in ten years, and Spacey is one of the best things in it.

American Beauty purports to be social comment and satire. It's supposed to be an insightful study of alienation and misplaced values and the rottenness of the American rat race -- money, status, the whole problem. So far, so good.

Savant found visual beauties and seductive imagery but in the entire piece saw nothing resembling truth or insight or wisdom, just a confused jumble of issues related to a particularly hellish mid-life crisis. Lester Birnham may seem a complicated characterization but even if his interior self-loathing makes sense, his actions do not. He is set up as a very particularized Everyman who does things that perhaps we would not dare but is meant to represent an extension of our desires and preoccupations. He has contempt for his job, his wife, his family and no longer gives a damn about keeping up the appearances of success or contentment. This is not an ignoble movie subject. Many of us worry about being ill-adjusted losers. American Beauty tries to turn Lester into a martyr to American Evil (it's the system, man) by stacking an enormous deck of grotesque and exaggerated characters against whom he can seem morally superior. Lester, and the filmmakers seem to assume that Lester's aimless, selfish contempt is an enlightened state of being.


Lester the felon. Lester is cheated out of his job, which he clearly despises in the first place. His reaction: blackmail for monetary gain. This enlightened piece of piracy is presented as if we are automatically supposed to admire Lester for pulling it off. Are we supposed to be so down on the 'system' that felony extortion is seen as the only response to a bad job? Lester's company superiors are monsters deserving of Lester's trap, and our scorn. This attitude we are invited to share would surely be welcomed by people who approve of insurance fraud, faked disability claims, etc. By extension, if the whole system is a pile of &%$#, then every 'retaliation' against the system and any square who sells out to it is fair and square. Notice that Lester's job appears to be in a privately owned company, not a corporation. Mustn't relate Lester's bad job situation with anything in the corporate world.

Lester and his wife. Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) is a caricature without a single redeeming aspect, except her infinite (innocent) cluelessness. I'm sure a lot of status-hungry, obnoxious people resemble her -- superficially. Scratch one of those people and you'll find someone just as vulnerable as your own benighted self, equally deserving of good and bad breaks, sympathy and criticism. American Beauty doesn't admit to complexity in people, or allow anyone against the Main Thesis of Lester to exist as a whole personality. The movie encourages us to victimize Carolyn because she opposes the coolness of her liberated husband. 1 Hubby Lester can indulge all of his kid fantasies, the car, the toys, all of it. But his wife, who at one time presumably cared for him, is allowed no slack whatsoever. Even Carolyn's simplest square fetish -- wanting to keep the living room a sterile showplace of her status, must be ridiculed as if she were the living symbol of what Lester must destroy. Lester isn't just an alienated victim. He's a cruel, criminal, hypocritical, selfish Big Baby. I believe he exists in real life. But why should we care about him as more than a study in folly? 2

Colonel Fitts. Even more undecipherable are the grotesque characters assembled around Lester, especially in the house next door. Well acted and compellingly directed, they are nevertheless abstractions of unreal concepts. Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper, so terrific in his John Sayles movies) is an entirely unworkable joke of a character. Having him turn out to be gay in heavy denial (I don't care if I spoil this, frankly) belongs in a farce like Dr. Strangelove, where truth coalesces at a level high above credible characterization. Savant is from a military family. I knew some Great Santini types, and I believe there are as many real sick-os in the military as anywhere else. This psychopathic Colonel is a cheap construction, to provide American Beauty with a shocking finale. It plays to that outdated and oppressive mindset that equates 'gay' with 'psychotic.'

Ricky. A complete suck-up to contemporary trends is Fitts' son Ricky (Wes Bentley). Ricky is a character who only exists in mad scientist -- mad criminal genre movies. He's tortured by his father, natch, an intolerable situation that in American Beauty's twisted logic justifies everything he is and does. He's a drug pusher, a criminal, and a video voyeur (how hip! how trendy! how film-school!) Ricky keeps at least ten thousand dollars worth of video equipment in his presumably oft-searched room and sicko Dad never notices. He videos everything, and seems to do a lot of his relating with people through the lens of his camera. He's Peeping Tom's Mark Lewis, without the psychological baggage (the worst unacknowledged homage rip-off since Brian De Palma) and with a lot more style. Ricky is American Beauty's most together person -- he has the situation wired. He fools his pop, wins the girl and earns Lester's admiration. Savant doesn't advocate SAY NO TO DRUGS as anyone's mantra (SAY NO TO SPORTS would be healthier for society) but the glamour associated with Ricky makes Easy Rider's drug cowboys seem innocuous by comparison. Ricky and Lester's daughter run off together like a young couple leaving Vincent Price to burn at the end of an Edgar Allan Poe movie. The only lesson to Lester or anyone else, is to become a ruthless and mercenary loner at an early age instead of waiting. These are the righteous people of the future, kids.

The nymphet. Finally, the nymphette business, Lester's flirtation with and eventual aborted seduction of his daughter's friend, the sex-talking, take-no-prisoners cheerleader. Lester's infatuation for this bonbon becomes the core symbol of his infantile midlife burnout, the objectified focus of his dreams and regrets, both wistfully innocent and irrationally, selfishly antisocial. The movie works best here, in the first 'rose petal' fantasy that, until repetition kills off the mood, bathes American Beauty in the warm glow of Magic Realism. But the resolution of this plotline is gutless, delivering the thrills but cowardly ducking the issue at hand. It delivers up the taboo of child molestation and statutory rape, and then cops out worse than films from the Eisenhower years. Lester's about to make his move, and the movie is just crossing the line into NC-17000 territory. Then, as if Gomer Pyle leaped up from behind the couch shouting, "Surprise, surprise!" Little Slut transforms into Innocent Child. Why, her hostile tramp-ery was only the defense mechanism of a confused and unloved dear heart. Lester's ardor dissolves as his nasty urges are replaced by humanistic, paternal sanity. He's cured, folks, and we can be sure he'll never want to look at another naked teenager again. Grade-A Family Values are reinforced.

Gutlessness. Savant can recall a Leave it to Beaver where Wally learned that the 'hot girl' touted by Eddie Haskell was really a nice young lady. This is basically the same conservative structure of American Beauty, which is not half as honest as that sanitized old TV episode. Stanley Kubrick's Lolita has the guts to look the nymphet syndrome directly in the lollypop. It creates a caring despair for even its most heavily caricatured types (Shelley Winters), and doesn't ask us to accept its tragic hero Humbert Humbert as a universal exponent of anything.

Savant believes American Beauty's superior acting, its style and particularly its glossy packaging made all the above objections irrelevant, no matter how obvious Savant thinks they are. Prestige pictures are no more immune to dumbness than are blockbusters; it's just that American Beauty's insensitivity and lack of respect for its own characters stands out in bold relief. Note the easy targets of its "satire": Real Estate agents. Military fanatics. Closeted gays.

American Beauty is nowhere near being a really bad movie. Savant was immersed in it for over an hour until it sank under its own weight. The "You are soooo busted" line made me laugh too. Savant suspects that some of its confusion came from commercial considerations. Savant watches many films over and over again for their sheer power, even when he knows they dramatically haven't a leg to stand on. Arthur Penn's The Chase is a major example. Then, there are manipulative and hollow crowd pleasers no sane human should be fooled by, like Forrest Gump. Savant would write about these films more except it's so darn depressing. Pointing out two reasons why you might like a film seems productive; screaming out two reasons why you shouldn't feels like a criticism of those who disagree. Who needs to alienate readers? Savant already knows he's a crank, and has no lack of friends eager to remind him of it!

Savant's been challenged by more than a couple of readers to come out and say what he thinks instead of just reviewing movies he already likes a lot. So this was the title that irked me the most. If anything, I say see the picture -- it has lots of great things in it. But what its universal acclaim and acceptance says about audiences ... well, maybe Spielberg and company succeed because they give us the movies we deserve.

Glenn Erickson, March 2000.

1. Remember M.A.S.H.? It's a film that seemed the height of hip wisdom when new, and now seems almost fascist in comparison. The cruel and selfish doctors in that movie were 'justified' in their petty tyranny over the 'squares' in the 4077th simply by dint of authorial decree: The war is bad, they are cool, and the uptight Burns and Houlihan are hopeless clowns, therefore anything goes. Now when I watch it, Margaret Houlihan is the tragic victim, and even the caricatured Frank Burns comes off as strangely sympathetic.

2. Like the film noir studies in perverse character: Al Roberts in Detour, or Harry Fabian in Night and the City. We find we desperately care about these people, but we understand that their problems are not imposed from outside by a despicable system.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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