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Over / Under: American Beauty

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April 19, 2008

American Beauty

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!

American Beauty

Next Week: Down with Love

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  • http://www.dashdingo.com justin
    Sorry, but this column series is weak. You only pick movies that are really highly rated or lowly rated, so the answer ends up being so obvious.
  • http://www.firstshowing.net Alex Billington
    Give it a chance... Read his article and fight back if you believe his opinions are wrong. Matt said he started out loving American Beauty and recently realized it wasn't so hot. If you think it's wrong, then properly argue him. Otherwise you don't have to read these... :)
  • Andrew
    Hmm, you were 15? So that makes you what... 24? And now you have discovered the plight of the middle aged? /lol Be patient... you will get there some day. You're take is off the mark. It seems you entirely missed a few of the layers. Thank you, come again.
  • sng.Sheep
    weird, i just say american beauty again like last night and marveled at Kevins great performance. When it came out i didn't even want to see it (i was 15alsoe and fight club seemed more atractive). I read somewhere that this film was overrated i wouldn't agree, tho i'm not from america i do know alot about american pop culture {and porn but that's not important right now :D}....Khm...Enihu, great flick! Favorite characters are Kevin Spacey's character and Mena Suvaries, i totaly think that she's far more interesting then Thora Birch's character, which is really a typical spoiled brat, and i never understood the floating bag thing :)
  • Kevin
    I think Andrew summed it up, you've got some life experience ahead to get through before you can truly judge a character like Lester Burnham with any sort of compassion. I saw this film when I was 24, still trying to figure out who to be after college, and utterly disgusted with the reality that I was supposed to settle into a job for 30 years. For me, personally, this film spoke the truths that I had trouble explaining to people like my parents, who just wanted me to go out and make a lot of money. This was the height of the dotcom era, when everybody traded their souls for stock options, and most plummeted with the startups they saught to create eBays out of. Accordingly, it is very important to recognize two things about American Beauty: one, that America was very different in 1999. Yes, our perceptions really were this shallow and unshaped by the Internet and real-time journalism that jades us all today, and two, that this film broke apart the American paradigm and exposed its weaknesses. It exposed life in America as glossy on the cover, but listless and damaged inside. That it was helmed by a Brit, yet penned by an American, says a lot. The real takeaway is to not let your life get away from you. Clearly you don't do that, so good for you!
  • http://goldbergblog.com Matt Goldberg
    Kevin, while I greatly appreciate your insightful comment, I would like to draw your attention to Robert Redford's "Ordinary People" which pretty much did the same thing as "American Beauty" in 1981. I think everyone has problems but I also think that perspective is important. I'm not saying we should all compare ourselves to starving children in Ethiopia. but at the same time, I think there's something to be said for the responsibility that the adults in this film are trying to eschew. I also don't like how Lester and Carolyn are both indulging in hedonistic behavior but somehow only Carolyn's the materialistic weasel. I've always wondered how that scene where Carolyn chastises Lester for almost spilling beer on the sofa would play if she responded that she was going to destroy his brand new car. Again, in a satire, it would be played for laughs that Lester shouts that it's "just a fucking sofa!" when he just spent money on the car he always wanted. I will be interested to come back to this film in ten or twenty years to see if I relate to it more than I do now.
  • http://elizaphanian.blogspot.com Sam Norton
    You say "a concept I tend to hate just on general principle: the suffering of upper-middle-class, suburban white people." I don't know how far that applies to you, but it applies to a lot of people, including me, and whilst there have been too many junk films about their problems, this wasn't one of them. The spiritual side seems to have completely passed you by!! I gave a talk to my church about this film, which, if you're interested, you can read here.
  • Andrew
    @Matt I think the realization being made by Lester throughout the movie is summed up with the sofa scene. The very fact that you think he would have responded in kind with a threat against his car means that either Kevin Spacey did not portray Lesters transformation convincingly, or that you simply did not understand the transformation at all. It is my opinion that Kevin Spacey portrayed the transformation brilliantly. The pursuit of the Glossy American Dream as succinctly described by Kevin (#5) can often lead to the abandonment of real emotion in the quest for "acquisition". This is Lesters realization. His transformation involves re-experiencing some actual emotion, and describes his journey back to understanding what is important in life. Sure, his journey involves some bumbling choices and misguided gestures. But these are awakening moments, perhaps not perfectly planned out, but all the more real as a result. The fact that his experiences are sort of clunky really lends the movie its cred. And is perhaps why it struck you so significantly when you weren't a "critic", when you were young and "raw". Lesters mind had been dulled by the American Dream, and his awakening is fraught with learning and discovery. Bentleys "dancing trashbag" scene is perfectly choreographed to stand in contrast with the "American Gloss" and loss of realization of which roses may be worth stopping to smell. Strangely, as a 24 year old, you are at the perfect age to be in full indoctrination mode, moments away from being fully coated in "gloss". Your goals are being dictated to you by a acquire/consume society, and you may lose a touch of your humanity as a result. You are correct when you say you may have a different perspective in ten or twenty years. You can count on it. So much more to say on this movie...
  • http://www.pdsys.org/blog/ Nicholas
    re: Justin, etc. -- You guys are entirely too hard on Matt, and this website in general. I had a similar experience with this film. I watched it when it first came out, thought it was amazing, and now, watching it again at 25 (almost 26), I think a lot of it is a bunch of crap. And I'm pretty sure I'll still think it's crap when I'm middle aged.
  • Lee
    The music is amazing in this movie, being composed by Thomas Newman.
  • http://goldbergblog.com Matt Goldberg
    @Lee: Oh yeah. Thomas Newman is one of the best composers in my book. I own several of his scores. @Andrew: I'm confused by your opening paragraph, "The very fact that you think he would have responded in kind with a threat against his car means that either Kevin Spacey did not portray Lesters transformation convincingly, or that you simply did not understand the transformation at all." I don't know if it was a typo, but I think it was CAROLYN who would have responded with a threat against his car. Lester threatening his own car would have been bizarre. As I noted in my article, I think Spacey saves the character of Lester because on the page, Lester is just despicable, shallow, and childish. It's Spacey's performance that imbues the character with a mix of sadness, humor, and strength that makes his death tragic instead of a cause for celebration.
  • Andrew
    @Matt Correct. Definitely a typo. "...responded in kind TO a threat against his car..." Sorry.
  • http://www.dashdingo.com justin
    I just mean he picks such obvious films. It's like picking on the weakest kid in elementary school. It's not hard guess the final outcome. American Beauty is viewed as one of the top movies in recent years. Something with such high praise is easy to call over rated. Going with a movie where there isn't such a consensus opinion would be a much more satisfying read.
  • http://goldbergblog.com Matt Goldberg
    Justin, if there isn't a consensus opinion, then it's not highly praised or over-looked. If there wasn't a general consensus, then it would just be a review and one more opinion into the fray. That's fine but it's kind of pointless as a weekly column.
  • SoWhat?
    i say "too late pal" and that gows to all the rest of you that are trying to be "different" "counter-culture cool" " oh yeah well american beauty sucked! take that DAD!" Hindsight is not 20/20 its convenient. I'll take your fresh opinion in '99 and throw out the rotten ones 10 yrs festering like your resentment
  • Rodger Codger
    Alex- Where do you find these people? Stop publishing 'shock value' articles. Yes- they get website hits... but your making a joke out of First Showing, and ruining its tenure. Stop. Seriously... just stop.
  • Brian G
    I think you totally missed the point of this film. It's not about the suffering of middle class Americans. It's about how fake people are, and the facades that they hide behind. In this film, no one is what they appear to be. Mena Suvari wants everyone to think she is this world-wise model who isn't afraid to sleep her way to the big time, when in fact she is a frightened little virgin. Annette Bening puts on the appearance of a successful realtor, but she is anything but. Chris Cooper is a tough-guy military man who is actually a closeted homosexual, and the list goes on. Kevin Spacey is the only one who decides to live his life for himself, without concern for what anyone else thinks of him, and he pays for it with his life. At least that's my take on it...
  • Conrad
    Of all movies to perform an over/under, you've chosen my favorite movie of all time: American Beauty. I don't want to sound crass or at all judgmental, but you've made two very distant opinions about this movie within 9 years of seeing. Both of these time you were between a teenager and and young man. Neither of these ages you've reached the age of Lester Burnham to truly fit in his shoes to what he has been through and how long he has been feeling the way that he is. What I think you possibly found that you enjoyed this so much was because you were 15. I believe because you were seeing a well crafted piece at this age, illustrating how anyone's life can end up if they just follow the natural routine of going/finishing school, getting a job, finding a woman, getting married, buying a house, having a child, and then slowly but surely....as the years go by....life does not seem and enjoyable as it once did. You're being shown a poignant reach into the future of how anyone's life can simply turn out. Its not always someones fault (as per Lester speaking with Jane in the kitchen near the beginning of the movie), its just the way things happen. The plastic bag video scene was and still is absolutely enchanting! Wes's dialogue was nothing short of emphatic. The way the room is softly darkened not to induce suspense or paranoia, but simply to capture the soothing mood of the plastic bag flying in the wind for 15 minutes. "Like a little kid, begging me to play with it." Remarkable.
  • http://goldbergblog.com Matt Goldberg
    @Brian G: I agree that's a point the film is trying to make (the poster's tagline is "Look closer...") but I think it's a banal and uninteresting point. People aren't who they seem to be? Really? People behave differently in private than they do in public? You can't really discuss that or take it beyond the film. It doesn't even raise any introspection. There's a reason we have an ego and an id and it's because we have to function in a society and if we all behaved like Lester, we'd all be undone. @Conrad: But do I have to be a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis in order to appreciate "American Beauty"? I appreciate "The Godfather" but I'm not an Italian mob boss. It seems rather limiting to have to appreciate a character only when you can personally identify with his life.
  • Betty
    I am glad that people stood up for the film, the positive comments have been well put. I loved this film when I was 25 years old and saw it in the theater , for the reasons listed in the 2 comments above. Now being 33 I like the movie just as much, relating more to the adults having a family now, living in the burbs and seeing the phonies and people trying to "keep up with the jones". Isn't the best films about taking ordinary lives and spinning them on screen to make you think twice and find the movie mesmerizing and not wanting it to end. Every time I watch it I want more, to know more about the characters now because they made that much of an impact on me.
  • Brian G
    I don't think it's saying that people behave differently in private, I think it's saying that people convince themselves that they really are the people that they present to the world, and are in denial about it. I know people who deceive themselves in just this way, and they believe the lie with every fiber of their being. It's when someone else forces them to confront the truth (the way Lester did by eschewing the farce) that they lose their grip. I think it's fascinating the way the people around him fall apart because they're unable to deal with someone who suddenly refuses to play by "the rules". You can't discuss that beyond the film? It doesn't raise any introspection? Maybe you just don't know anyone like these characters. One of my colleagues is the king of the self-constructed realities, and his entire world starts to come undone if anyone ever calls him on it, so I know these characters well. I don't think you ned to be a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis to appreciate American Beauty, but maybe you do need to be exposed to the right kind of people.
  • http://goldbergblog.com Matt Goldberg
    "The unexamined life is not worth living." Since that quote is attributed to Socrates, I don't think this film is really doing anything novel with the concept that some people build carefully constructed facades. But if the film is saying that the way to break the rules is through unbridled self-interest, then it's a more morally despicable film than I gave it credit for. I understand there are people like those in the film but that doesn't make their stories any more interesting or their pursuits of self-interest as a way of re-evaluating their identity. And I do know people who are like those in the film but they're not simple ego/id beings like the ones presented in the film.
  • Pete
    I think a lot of people have brought up interesting points but I disagree with everyone shouting out at Matt that he needs to be 40 to enjoy this work of art. Matt, i personally think you're viewing the movie from the completely wrong angle - "It's a self-help video." The point really wasn't to say Lester has it all down, live like Lester. I think the point was just to bring a reality to the ugliness of the American Dream. IMO the movie wasn't written to bring hope to people stuck in their facades, It was just bringing to light peoples misconceptions about life, goals, dreams etc etc. What struck me was just the concept of how wrong you can be about something/someone until you look a little deeper. The movie doesn't have to be satire, and its certainly not self-help. It seems like those are the only two options for you.
  • http://www.modelmayhem.com/kevjohnphotography kevjohn
    I know this isn't exactly the topic under discussion today, but I think Cuba Gooding Jr. rightfully won his Oscar with his great performance. But I suppose we all have our lists of "who should/shouldn't have won". Personally, I'd give Geoffrey Rush's Oscar from the same year to Billy Bob Thornton. There.
  • Jont
    god it seems like you were 15 when you wrote this
  • Nicc
    I'm just curious Matt, but if the fakeness, and the facades we(as in Americans)portray on a mass scale is banal and uninteresting...especially coming from a movie, which i would assume, can easily be cast as an everyday REAL situation, what exactly would constitute interesting in this arena of life? I mean it's almost a fundamental building block in this day and age, to be something, to live something, to whole heartedly "believe" we are something...that we are not. American Idol is a prime example...we sit and laugh at the try outs, but look how many of those people, who have absolutely no business singing, actually believe they can sing. It's astonishing the lies and the self-delusion that the mind can do, if we WANT it to. To me that makes a great and interesting point, something that concerns us each and everyday...you see it all around you...people wanting to be more, and something special...when they are not, and never will be. As for the self-interest...well come on, the old saying applies. GOOD GUYS FINISH LAST. the greedy, cheating, back stabbing, and the heartless always seem to come out on top, and in the arena of family and love it's no different, much less for the average person trying to be someone before someone else can. The DESPERATION each of the characters had in their own right, was also a major draw for the movie IMO. Each one needed something from someone else and they would, it seems, give anything to have it. Lester giving his life, even if not knowing it, he gave it just to have a taste of the freedom his mind could see and touch. It's not easy pulling off reality either, and let's be real...how many people like seeing their own fakeness blasted on widescreen with the world watching. People take thing personal, and if you're fake all the way thru, like those characters were, then it stands to reason, those types of people won't like that movie... It's alot like reality shows of today...it's not real reality, people wouldn't watch if it was...it's a make believe reality, and we as people, as the masses "want" to believe to, so we watch. It's exciting and always is funny, with cool people and characters...Beautiful Lies... When the truth is so much more dull and depressing... You can see "American Beauty" on damn near every show you watch...and that, is epic...
  • AmBeau
    Obviously you didn't pay too well attention because Thora Birch's character was saving up to get breast reduction surgery, not enlargements.

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