American Beauty (1999)

A review by Jeffrey Overstreet.

UPDATE, September 8, 2011: It’s been twelve years since I first rough-drafted this review. I’d seen the film three times in just a few weeks, determined to understand what was inspiring and enthralling so many people. None of those screenings ever inspired me, although I did admit that some of the film’s technical aspects were impressive. Today, the film’s finer points are memorable, but its failings leave a stronger impression. I’m still amazed that the movie won Best Picture in the year of The Insider and the overlooked Toy Story 2. For a long time now, another 1999 film about an American family has been part of the Criterion Collection: Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. And that’s as it should be. Criterion has never picked up American Beauty, and I’ve read some critics’ polls in which American Beauty has rated highly among Best Picture Oscar Winners That Didn’t Deserve It. It’s smug, it’s condescending, and it’s politically biased to the edge of bigotry. So it was with some irony that I stole a line from the movie to be the title of my blog: “Look closer.”

SPOILERS! This review includes consideration of specific plot points, including the film’s conclusion. You have been warned.
Director – by Sam Mendes; writer – Alan Ball; director of photography – Conrad L. Hall; editors – Tariq Anwar and Chris Greenbury; music – Thomas Newman; production designer – Naomi Shohan; producers – Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks. Starring – Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts), Chris Cooper (Colonel Fitts), Scott Bakula (Jim No. 1) and Sam Robards (Jim No. 2). Dreamworks Pictures. 115 minutes. This film is rated R.

Another Dysfunctional Family

For years, it was the habit we couldn’t break.

Now, for decades, it’s become the habit we can’t stop breaking.

American cinema is preoccupied with the image of the American family that was sold to us in the 50s…that “Father Knows Best” model of the dutiful Dad, the perfect Mom, and the happy boys and girls.

My parents’ generation became accustomed to seeing that model onscreen, and sitcoms taught us that any tension within that context could be easily resolved within thirty minutes.

But the reality was more complicated, more frustrating, more difficult. And the inevitable backlash arrived in the form of darker, more “realistic,” more cynical portrayals. Those “deconstructions” of the ’50s fantasy have become so common and predictable, portraying a “traditional” family in which parents and children actually enjoy each other’s company is a bold, radical, counter-cultural thing to do.

In the 80s and 90s, David Lynch and his cinematic disciples focused on turning over the rocks in the white-picket-fence front yard of the American family. In many cases, they seemed eager to shove the ugly truth down our throats. With “Twin Peaks” on television and Blue Velvet in theatres, David Lynch lamented the brokenness, the dark secrets, the quiet suffering, the destructive appetites that can fester behind the facades of happiness and perfections. The message seemed to be this: “That 50s family fantasy is a lie, and when we understand that everything is corrupt, it’s very difficult to grasp any hope, faith, or love.”

This year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture introduces us to yet another dysfunctional family.

By the time Sam Mendes’ American Beauty begins, the happy days are already over. Dad is cynical and depressed. Mom is burning herself out in her quest to be a professional success. And their daughter is lost, lonely, neglected, and she knows it. “I need a father that’s a role model,” complains Jane to her boyfriend Ricky.

She’s right. Her father, Lester Burnham, is a sneering jerk, hardened by days at the office, embittered by a marriage gone sour, and lusting after high school girls. “Do you want me to kill him for you?” Ricky asks Jane. Is he joking?

Look closer,” says the movie’s slogan.

Slowly, the movie takes us under the surface to the lies, the private sins, the fear and loathing. But even as it peels back the skin and shows us the cancer, it shows us possible responses to it. We can become angry. Or rebellious. Or cynical. Or all of the above.

Or, we can also look for the roses among the thorns, the beauty in the brokenness, and respond with beauty and grace of our own.

Sounds wonderful, right?

Unfortunately, in spite of good intentions, American Beauty tells a few lies of its own.

Let’s answer the movie’s own call. Let’s look even closer.

The Awakening of Lester Burnham

You’d have to be hard-hearted not to relate to the disillusionment, bitterness, and cynicism of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). Lester’s job sucks. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) doesn’t pay attention to him. Their social life and their sex life are the pits.

So it makes sense to us that Lester would connect with the free-spirited boy next door. Ricky (Wes Bentley) is a rebel. He feels comfortable quitting his job, taking everything lightly, smoking a joint, and enjoying life. This philosophical drug-dealing teenager shows Lester how to be courageous and spontaneous. Lester is dumfounded. Can a person really live so recklessly, just do as they please, and get away with it? Is happiness that simple?

It is the turning point in Lester’s life and, we are led to believe, the beginning of his journey towards happiness.

So, when he develops a crush on his daughter’s best friend, a high-school cheerleader named Angela (Mena Suvari), he starts flirting with disaster. We are led to believe an inappropriate crush is what lights the spark in Lester’s heart. Like Mr. Watanabe in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, he’s drawn to the possibility of regaining his youthful sense of wonder, but he goes about it the wrong way… by trying to possess someone who is out of his reach.

Lester gets back into shape. He develops a wild fantasy life. He starts enjoying himself. The fact that he’s acting irresponsibly as a husband and a father fails to bother him.

Meanwhile, his wife Carolyn is behaving the same way. She’s frustrated at being a professional failure. So she starts shooting pistols to let off steam, and she pursues an extramarital affair to cheer herself up. Her failure as a mother and a wife doesn’t seem to bother her.

Yes, everybody in this story is pursuing their dreams in hopes of finding happiness. And they’re breaking promises, betraying their families, and giving a big middle finger to what other people might think.

Clearly, disaster awaits.

Watching this film, I sensed that the conclusion could be a revelation. Like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, we might see characters realize that there are healthy and unhealthy ways of responding to unhappiness. We might see them pursue self-indulgence and eventually realize that such a response only replaces one mess with another. We might see them realize that there’s a different between being right… and being righteous.

Unfortunately, that’s not where American Beauty ends up. Whereas Ikiru‘s Mr. Watanabe discovers that joy comes through humility and service, the characters in this film come to different conclusions that lack such insight.

In the few times I have seen this movie, the audiences have left exhilarated, wide-eyed, deeply moved. Obviously, America was touched by this film.

But what have we learned from it?

Look closer.

What Does It Mean?

In the story of Lester Burnham’s hell-bent quest for happiness, the audience is set up to cheer for his smug rebellion and his recklessness. I saw the film three times in the theater, and audiences laughed uproariously at his sarcasm. They cheered when he pursued freedom recklessly and irresponsibly. They were amused by his lustful fantasies. And they were not given enough a fair vision of the destruction his sophomoric rebelliousness was causing.

And then, in the final moments of the film, as Lester draws closer and closer to “de-flowering” Angela the Teenage Cheerleader, things become suddenly uncomfortable. The movie abruptly admits that, yes, there is a moral absolute here. There is a right and wrong. Lester does have a moral responsibility.

Sure enough, Lester does the right thing. He backs away from his long-awaited tryst with little Angela. Thank God for that. It is wise to resist selfish temptation, to refrain from leading naive young people into decisions they will regret.

But then Lester makes his biggest mistake. When he turns away from Angela, and she is overwhelmed with humiliation, he embraces her, comforts her, and says seven deadly words: ”You have nothing to be sorry for.

If he had said “It will be okay” or “Yes, we have behaved very badly, and let’s never do it again,” or if he had said “I’m sorry for my part in bringing us to this place…” that would have shown some wisdom.

But American Beauty shows us characters learning to deny responsibility, absolve themselves of sins, and shrug their shoulders at their mistakes. In fact, it won’t even admit that they’re mistakes.

Lester assures Angela that she is valuable and special. That’s good. She is. The movie has that part right.

But Angela is not innocent. She will not become wise until she acknowledges her failures, her weakness. Any recovering alcoholic can tell you that. We begin our recovery by naming our disease. Angela and Lester have been trying to escape things that are, yes, worth escaping. But they’ve been doing so by deserting their responsibilities and acting like reckless children. They’ve been doing harm to other people and, if they can see the truth of it, themselves.

We should grieve when we realize that we have acted irresponsibly. We should “always let our conscience be our guide.”

Even Jiminy Cricket knew that.

It gets worse. In the end, as Lester’s daughter Jane finally gets fed up with this family and runs away, as his wife is driven to thoughts of murder, Lester reaches a state of nirvana, smiling, sighing, “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

Wrong again, Lester. When you find out that you’re sick, don’t sigh and say everything’s fine. Face the wrongs that made you sick in the first place. Speak the truth of it. Go have surgery… and then get on with your life. You’re a husband and a father, Lester. Go out there and do the hard work of trying to reconcile with your wife. Confess your sins, ask for forgiveness, and then start over.

The most blatant example of this movie’s dangerous optimism is still yet to come. When a central character lies dead, shot in the back of the head, young Ricky discovers the body. He approaches it slowly and smiles, as though moved by the beauty of it. The camera impresses upon us that, yes, this is the lesson: Even in murder there is beauty.

Perhaps one can find beauty in such a spectacle. But when a person’s initial reaction to the bloody murder of a good friend is to smile and sigh at its beauty… something has gone terribly wrong. Grief and horror are a natural and entirely appropriate reaction to evil. Just as pain is, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “God’s megaphone” for telling us something is wrong, so horror is an affirmation that something abominable is happening.

Now… horror and despair are two different things. Horror is the affirmation that something is wrong. Despair is to surrender all hope of redemption. We must move through horror to finding hope in something greater than our own fractured selves, or else we’ll end up in despair. But this movie doesn’t want us to acknowledge horror at all.

Phillip Yancey writes about the problem of pain with great insight. He talks about how the disease of leprosy robs its victims of the gift of pain. Because lepers can’t feel pain, they often don’t realize when they are causing themselves injury, and they suffer irreversible damage.

To me, the climax of American Beauty is encouraging us toward a sort of emotional leprosy. Ricky gives us no evidence of pain, grief, or horror at the death of his friend. He smiles, gets up, and runs away… a hero for inspiring others to acts of irresponsibility.

A double standard

Strangely, American Beauty gives Lester permission to do what he wants, to shrug at his mistakes, to go on smiling. But it doesn’t extend that privilege to others.

Audiences cheer when Lester goes after his goals. But when Carolyn goes after her own selfishness and sleeps with another man, we are led to celebrate and laugh and cheer when she gets caught by Lester, who again gets to deliver the winning sarcasm.

Audiences hate Ricky’s dad (Chris Cooper), the nasty ex-military conservative next door, when he himself is making the same mistakes as Lester… self-righteously pursuing control of his own world. (In movies of moral anarchy, the liberals always cry “tolerance, tolerance,” while demonstrating intolerance for conservatives and making them out to be the enemy.)

Acclaimed film critic Pauline Kael asked in exasperation, “Can’t liberals see that this movie sucks up to them at every turn?”

Pushing the audience’s buttons

American Beauty has an ironclad strategy for pleasing American audiences. First, it appeals to our cynicism. Then it appeals to our self-interest. And finally it appeals to our sense of morality. If you say you don’t like this movie, you’re in all kinds of trouble.

Like another Best Picture winner – Forrest Gump –  it suggests that all of life’s problems can be fixed with a simple change of perspective.

Gump implied that life’s difficult conflicts can be solved with simple platitudes and and ignorance of life’s complexities. You made enemies fast if you said you didn’t like the movie.

American Beauty implies that we can be happy if we just focus on the positive, beautiful things and ignore, or worse, deny, the disease. Evil, it suggests, comes from conservatives.

At least Forrest Gump had a heart for serving others, loving others, and was rather selfless. I give him credit for that. Lester Burnham is not an advocate for selflessness. He’s a champion of ignoring the real problem. Sure, he makes one decision that shows he has some shred of decency. But the audience has been encouraged to celebrate, to laugh, to revel in all of his selfish maneuvers along the way. And so the audience goes home happy, having had a great time.

Okay, it has a muddled message. But is it art?

American Beauty does have its virtues. Master cinematographer Conrad Hall makes this fairly typical American neighborhood very easy on the eyes. The soundtrack is effectively restrained. And there is an impressive, breakthrough performance by Wes Bentley.

But this movie is hardly original. From television’s “Roseanne” to “Married With Children”, America is doing its best to convince itself that there’s nothing wrong with broken relationships. If these messed up families are fun to watch week after week, then we can feel better about our own problems. When David Lynch and Ang Lee deconstructed the typical American family, you could sense a genuine grief at the problems there, a longing for people to do the right thing, to be good fathers and mothers, to save their families. American Beauty uses the same devices to expose the evils, and then just smiles while it all goes to hell.

Director Sam Mendes seems worried that we won’t get the film’s message. The narration from the very beginning of the movie, and the big speeches of each character along the way, tell us what it all means so we’re sure not to miss it.

I would offer briefly (without making this review any longer than it already is) seven points about its artistic flaws.

1. Structural Compromise

It compromises its own narrative structure. If Lester Burnham is telling the story, how does he know so much about what went on in the neighbor’s houses behind closed doors?

2. Dangerous Indulgence

The movie immerses us in Lester’s sexual fantasies. Okay… Lester has a crush on a high-school cheerleader! Enough already. We get it. Do we have to watch him fantasize about her, over and over? And in slow motion?

This film will likely inspire more pedophiles than it discourages. It throws fuel on the fire, then warns them about the dangers of fire, and concludes with a pat on the back: “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

3. Uneven Performances

Many are calling Spacey’s performance Oscar-worthy. He is good at playing the jaded rebel with a smart remark for everything that comes his way. But is this much of a “performance”? It’s not that much different from the demeanor of his character in LA Confidential, and there’s even a bit of his Usual Suspects turn in there as well (in his metamorphosis from a slouch on the couch to a confident athlete.)

Annette Bening as Lester’s success-or-bust wife is certainly enthusiastic. But she swings a little bit too drastically between campy Lucille-Ball-funny and the I’m-Gonna-Get-Nominated melodrama.

To show how evil Ricky’s conservative ex-military father is, Ricky’s poor mother, a silent, battered, and repressed woman, is played by Allison Janney like a zombie out of Night of the Living Dead.

Some of the performances are commendable, especially Bentley as Ricky. The always-impressive Peter Gallagher seems determined in each movie to come up with a more outrageous hairstyle than his last movie. But these performances belong in different films… a drama and a satire.

4. Speechifying

The profound speeches are jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the characters’ dialogue. I couldn’t imagine Spacey’s speech at the end coming out of the mouth of his wisecracking Lester Burnham. See if you can. It sounds like a passage out of “Deep Thoughts” or a Hallmark card.

5. Camp or Realism?

Early scenes portray the Burnhams and their neighborhood with such exaggeration that one can imagine the neighborhood from Edward Scissorhands right around the corner. 45 minutes later (specifically, in the scene where Lester meets Ricky), the movie’s tone changes. The characters suddenly become real. The neighborhood quits acting like a cartoon. And the mean-spirited satire backs off for a more contemplative tone.

6. Gratuitous Nudity

Hey, if the camera lingers on the nudity of under-aged girls for the sake of “realism,” why does the camera avoid male nudity? And if the filmmakers want us to view Lester’s lust for a minor as wrong, why does the camera ogle at this cheerleader’s naked body, while the storytellers steer around any acknowledgment of the consequences of such pursuits?

Conclusion

American Beauty does have some important things on its mind. I would agree with some of its exhortations. Hang on to your youthful lust for life. Do this by seeking all that is beautiful, and by telling the truth in everything.

But I would add… do so carefully, and with love. If American Beauty had shown the importance of this, it might truly have been the year’s best picture.

Just one year earlier, The Ice Storm accomplished what American Beauty did not. America didn’t notice the film that impressed me most in 1998.

 

2 Responses to “American Beauty (1999)”

  1. will Says:

    Hmm…I agree and disagree with a great deal of what you’ve shared here. Would love to comment soon after I’ve had more opportunity to mull.

    It’s interesting to me to gradually discover our different preferences in film (which are few & far between) and to wonder how much of the difference is philosophically driven and how much is personal preferences that become a critical judgment.

    Thanks for taking the time to write all this out. It’s strange that no one commented on it back in November.

  2. closerlooker Says:

    Will,

    This review has been published since the month of the film’s release. In November it was moved to this new version of the site, and comments became available for the first time. That’s why yours is the first comment visible here. But I’ve had email conversations about this review for many years.

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