Over / Under: American Beauty
by Matt Goldberg
April 19, 2008
For an introduction to this weekly retrospective column titled Over / Under written by Matt Goldberg, please visit the first post in the series.
When I saw American Beauty in 1999, I thought it was one of the greatest films ever made and wholly deserving of its Best Picture Oscar. Granted, I hadn't seen Fight Club or any of the other great films that came out in '99. Also, I was only 15. What's your excuse?
Looking back on American Beauty, I can still say that two aspects hold up very well: Conrad Hall's gorgeous cinematography and Kevin Spacey's performance. Oh, and Allison Janney's performance is probably the most over-looked greatness in the film. But other than that, you have a film that's a concept I tend to hate just on general principle: the suffering of upper-middle-class, suburban white people. Unless it's satirical (and even if that's what writer Alan Ball intended, director Sam Mendes totally screwed it up), American Beauty is a moralizing, pedantic feel-gooder that tries to hide behind Lester Burnham's sardonic wit and the promise of Mena Suvari's breasts.
Back in 1999, I also thought Wes Bentley's performance was mesmerizing and that he was robbed of not only an Oscar nomination, but an Oscar win. The Academy tends to get it wrong a lot of the time, but at least they didn't make a mistake of Cuba Gooding Jr-sized proportions. Watching Bentley now, he's as laughable here as he was in Ghost Rider. His dancing trash bag monologue is as shallow as it is proto-emo. But this is a film filled with petty, one-dimensional characters.
American Beauty would be a great film if it were poking fun at how people who have pretty good lives create their own problems, all leading to a closeted gay man whose unbearable homosexuality leads him to murder (lesson: if Chris Cooper tries to make out with you, you make out with Chris Cooper). A woman who is so superficial it leads her to cheat? A well-chested girl who wants bigger hooters? Coming back to Janney's character, she's the only one that seems genuine and is disconnected from the world. She's not down to Earth. She's just gone. Lucky her.
Lester is just as petty as everyone else and his "transformation" is just exchanging one emptiness for another. His is an uncoming-of-age story and a full rejection of adult responsibilities for the nostalgia of one's youth. It's not that Lester should be happy with his life, but he finds happiness in lusting after a minor, extortion, working at a drive-through, and getting high. The only real positive is his trying to get back in shape and maybe buying the car he always wanted. Even as he's looking back on what mattered most in his life, they're distant memories.
He doesn't lament not seeing his daughter grow up nor does he recall any moments with his wife where she doesn't look middle-aged. It's not that he shouldn't remember the good times but that none of those good times were recent and in The Year of Lester, he basically breaks off from his family and leaves those tattered remnants for his own happiness. If it weren't for Spacey, Lester would be a completely repulsive loser. He's regressive man-child who, unable to find enlightenment and happiness as a man, goes back to what made sense as a child. As a satire, the film would work beautifully. But it's not a satire. It's a self-help video.
There may be too much beauty in the world, but American Beauty does its part to ugly it up a bit.
Over / Under: OVERRATED!
Next Week: Down with Love