“American Beauty” is a movie I felt compelled to write about because I think it was widely misinterpreted, especially by critics, as a great movie. It received almost unanimously great reviews and was awarded Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay. Sam Mendes, a respected theater director in his film debut, was acclaimed for showing a realistic view of the misery lurking beneath the façade of a picture perfect family in suburban America. The filmmakers intend for a satirical tone but there is an overall smugness at the heart of the movie that made me resent it.
The story begins with a voice over narration by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), talking to us after he has died, to recount in flashback the events leading up to that moment. This conceit is clearly intended to invoke William Holden’s opening narration in “Sunset Blvd.” but there is nothing surprising or significant in this approach. It doesn’t lead to any major dramatic payoff but comes across as a clever stunt that just conveys how contrived and self-important the movie is.
Lester is married to Carolyn (Annette Bening) and they have a rebellious teenager daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). Lester and Carolyn argue at the dinner table and Jane feels ignored so we get scenes of the dysfunction of this family but it’s all very affected. Lester hates his job so he quits and blackmails his boss into severance pay then takes a job working at a fast food drive-thru. Are we supposed to believe this is something he would likely do? He seems to be working there for the sole purpose of catching his wife with another man, her boss Buddy (Peter Gallagher). That scene is one of many contrivances in “American Beauty” that constantly condescend to the audience. Repeatedly, we see these characters behave in circumstances that are not believable and seem to contradict earlier actions in an obvious manner.
For instance, Lester is seen fantasizing about his daughter’s cheerleader friend (Mena Suvari). He talks to her about smoking pot and she relates to him as a mature adult. We see her talking often about all the men she’s slept with but when the time comes for Lester to make his move on her, she confesses she’s a virgin. No surprise. At that moment, Lester decides to pull back and not sleep with the girl. We’re supposed to believe that all of a sudden Lester developed a conscience? Further proof that the movie is a cheat occurs when the neighbor boy’s military father (Chris Cooper), seen earlier verbally assaulting his son and making derogatory homosexual slurs, makes an unwanted sexual advance towards Lester. Get it? He’s a closeted homosexual. Ridiculous! Nothing these characters do earlier in the movie would lead us to believe the actions they take later on. It’s just a writer’s contrivance to tell us that these people may appear to be one thing but their actions say otherwise. This is handled in such melodramatic fashion that it undermines the satire.
To be fair the movie is well made. Sam Mendes is good with the actors and gets solid performances from Spacey and Bening. The late Conrad Hall won the Oscar for his cinematography, particularly brilliant in the famous fantasy sequence where Lester imagines the cheerleader in a bathtub covered by rose pastels. Chris Cooper is forced to overdo the standard sadistic military father and the usually superb Allison Janney is completely emasculated in a nothing role as the silent wife. The teenagers are so precocious that their dialogue often feels forced. The subplot of the mysterious neighbor boy, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who smokes pot and attracts Jane, includes a scene where he shows a videotape of the beauty of a plastic bag floating in midair. It is so pretentious I had to laugh.
Spacey and Mendes have been inspired by Billy Wilder’s movies. “American Beauty” shares a cynicism Wilder is known for but his movies, like “The Apartment”, had a streak of sentimentality and charm that balanced the cynicism so that we embraced the characters. Wilder’s characters acted in a way that seemed to ring true. Mendes seems more content to keep audiences at a distance because he wants to show us the misery of our alienation. Why has “American Beauty” been embraced by so many critics? Maybe because it sucks up to the liberal view of the superiority felt towards mundane small town life. Rather than recognizing the phoniness of the filmmakers’ intentions, critics seemed to be acknowledging the filmmakers own misconceptions.