Sunday, August 10, 2008

REVIEW: American Beauty

I really think Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigalo got overlooked that year.

I imagine that when director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball set about creating their 1999 film project for DreamWorks, they had much the same problem Mel Gibson did when he set out to make Apocalypto, his epic about the Mayan civilization on the brink of its collapse. Just as Gibson had to make a film about a strange, foreign people that he could never examine up close, much less meet, Mendes and Ball took on the challenge of making a realistic film about the inscrutable people of the Americas: middle-class suburbanites. Certainly, they studied the historical accounts of these people, but while Married… with Children and Saved by the Bell could convey the facts, they couldn’t make real the stark desperation of people who lived outside Los Angeles or New York, were not regularly interviewed by Larry King or James Lipton, and could go entire years without leaving the country. These were the people who stood somewhere between the rich elites that Sam Mendes knew he was right to hate, and the desolate blue-collar laborers that he was right to pity.

The result was American Beauty, one of the great works of anthropology in film history.
Yes, I get it. She's the American Beauty and she's wearing red, white, and blue. See, I understand you, and you still SUCK.

The focus of this sweeping cinematic epic is Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). He’s neither politically incendiary nor an artist, so his only recourse is to hate everyone and everything. He has a large, attractive house, an attractive wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening, utilizing the subtle nuances of characterization she learned in Mars Attacks!), and daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, showing the talents that qualified her for Dungeons & Dragons... both of them), and an executive position at an advertising agency. So naturally, he’s miserable. When he’s not squabbling with upper management at work, bickering with his wife about her failing real estate dealing job, or quarreling with his daughter about how she dislikes him, he finds time for his favorite hobby: complaining. Some middle-aged men who don’t have absolutely thrilling jobs or idyllic families will occasionally find time to enjoy themselves by playing softball, fishing, performing in a band, hanging out with the guys at the bar, maintaining blogs nobody reads, or perhaps doing something charitable, Lester prefers to keep things consistent by being a sarcastic pain in the ass to his family and co-workers, and not doing anything else with himself. As the film opens, just before we see him masturbating in the shower, the highlight of his day, Lester tells us through narration that he will be dead within a year. If at any point during the film you would like to skip to that point, the Triumph of Justice comes at the 1 hour, 29 minute, 34 second, 407 millisecond mark on your DVD.

"Chelsea, honey, could you tell Monica back there that she needs to stay in her seat and wear a safety belt?

Lester hates everything, but when he is dragged to see Jane perform as a cheerleader at a high school basketball game, he becomes instantly infatuated with her best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari, the love child of Marilyn Monroe and a Fraggle Rock character). His sputtering nonsense as he tries to make conversation with her and his later efforts at bulking up to impress her come across as a sitcom routine played out by a creepy old pedophile. Remember: if it has a laugh track, it's low-brow. If it is acted out by Kevin Spacey and directed by Sam Mendes, it's high-brow. Keep things straight.

Another well-adjusted family has just moved in next door. The patriarch, Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps (Chris Cooper), is the kind of ex-military meathead that you know qualified Sam Mendes to be given the directing job on Jarhead by a film producer. Frank hates homosexuals with every fiber of his being, he beats his son, he owns a gun collection (though it pales compared to Burt Gummer’s in Tremors, which is a treasure of Western art if this was the best film of 1999), and he spends his evenings watching stock army footage on a television that looks like it’s older than he is. His wife, Barbara (Allison Janney) looks like she‘s spent a bit too much time locked up in a room with yellow wallpaper. Their son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), is the kind of character that almost makes you long more for scenes with Lester. Whereas Lester is at least someone you can imagine having an amusing conversation with at a party, Ricky goes around with a Mr. Spock expression the entire movie while using his camcorder to film everything he thinks “deep”: a dead bird, a plastic bag swirling in the wind, voyeur shots of a naked Lester, and unfortunately, Jane, who‘s almost as Emo as he is. And to make him even more lovely, he’s a drug dealer with a network of clients that would make Frank Lucas envious and Amy Winehouse aroused. So it’s just natural that Ricky’s “I don’t get along with people, but that’s because I’m deep” routine simultaneously repels Angela and attracts Jane.

The Matrix has you, Lester. And by the way, watch your step.

Ricky sells some drugs to Lester--which is never seen as a bad thing except by Carolyn and Frank--as part of Lester’s efforts to chill out and reinvent himself so he can attract Angela. He gets high, listens to the kind of crappy old music that the Baby Boomer generation just won’t let die, and works his saggy body into shape. He also gets himself fired from his job, but not before blackmailing his boss into giving him a full year’s salary as part of the severance package. See, he’s mad at the company because a higher-level executive used company money to pay off a hooker, and someone’s going to need to be laid off because of the lost funds. So Lester decides to make this right by extorting money from the company and ensuring that someone else will need to be fired by the same logic. Real nice, Les. Frankly, the hooker story is just an excuse for Lester to get pissy at his company for daring to require that he do something he doesn’t enjoy for eight hours a day in order to make money. But Lester’s not so irresponsible as to not work at all. Rather, he works gleefully at a crappy hamburger joint because he wants a job with no responsibility, although I’m not sure why he didn’t take up directing.

Nothing says sexy and hip like a Busby Berekeley musical number.

Meanwhile, Carolyn’s real estate operation is in the toilet. In one of the film’s more unbelievable scenes, she can’t for the life of her muster enthusiasm from a variety of home-seekers for a large, if slightly garish house with a substantial pool. I don’t know what the real estate situation was like in California in 1999, but I’m reasonably sure that 95% of home buyers don’t need the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to at least feign interest in a house. Reacting to her own failure as a businesswoman and to an unhappy marriage, she starts an affair with real estate mogul/motivational guru Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher)--no relation to Sutter Cane except for creepiness. The poorly-hidden affair doesn’t really bother Lester, since he’s not exactly being subtle about his own extramarital ambitions.

This stuff is primo Worms in Dirt.

What does Jane think of all this? She thinks her mom’s a creep who doesn't care about her. She’s right. She thinks her Dad’s a creep who doesn’t care about her. She’s right. Sure, Dad eventually takes some interest in his daughter’s happiness at the film’s very end, but not to her face. Like everything, this movie seems to think that if you’re living for yourself and not harshing someone else’s buzz, you’re an admirable person. The fact that Lester contributes nothing to his family or society, lusts after his daughter's best friend without the slightest care about how that would hurt Jane, buys dope from a kid whose father is trying to get him clean, and acts rudely to everyone he perceives as slighting him in the most subtle ways apparently isn't enough to make us dislike this guy. In a horror movie, Lester would be the smart-aleck creep that gets the most vicious death because the audience is tired of his cavalier attitude while other people with serious priorities are trying to survive. But in this movie, he's the protagonist.

Anyway, the endgame starts during a night when Lester's working out in the garage and wants some weed. Rick makes up an excuse to go next door on a delivery, but a suspicious Frank watches. Frank has recently begun to suspect that Rick is gay, so thanks to a bizarre Austin Powers scene in which it appears that Rick is giving the shirtless Lester a, ahem, greeting and salutation, Frank thinks his suspicions are confirmed. Later that night, Frank walks through the rain to confront Lester in his garage, and just when you think he's about to kill him, he... kisses him. Uh-huh. I'd tell this movie to jump up my butt, except that with the scene I just described, I think that might be misinterpreted. Anyway, Lester tells him he's got the wrong idea, and we're all confident that's the last we'll see of Frank.

"Hello, Jane. I want to play a game."

While Carolyn's driving home, apparently ready to shoot Lester herself and become the great fictitious heroine of our age, Angela and Jane end their friendship during a sleepover when Angela can't get behind Jane's plan to run away with Ricky. Considering that Ricky's going to run away with the $40,000 of drug money he's saved up, and that he'll set up a new life with the help of his drug kingpin friends, I might see her as having a point. I kept waiting for someone to acknowledge that Ricky is a less-than-respectable human being, but the movie doesn't seem to share my prudishness about organized crime, nor does Sam Mendes appear to have seen Requiem for a Dream. When Angela goes downstairs and meets Lester, she offers herself to him, but he stops just short when she confesses that she's actually a virgin. This is apparently some kind of revelation to Lester, and makes him both closer to Angela as a friend and more philosophical about his life. He's suddenly glad that Jane's happy with Ricky, even though he KNOWS the kid's a drug dealer. He thinks back to when he and Carolyn were truly in love. And frankly, I don't give a rip.

While Angela's cleaning herself up, someone sneaks up behind Lester and puts him out of our misery with a bullet to the back of the head. At first, we're supposed to think that Carolyn did it, but anyone with half a brain (which is exactly what Lester has now, cha-ching!) knows that Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps did it because he's a spurned self-loathing gay guy, which is very quickly confirmed. Ricky and Jane come down and see Lester dead. The sight elicits a slight shudder from her, while Ricky just kneels down and looks at him like Lester's just another fascinating thing he'd like to film, which made me no longer want to kill Ricky, but to see him torn apart by Cenobites. The fact that Lester died with a content smile on his face clearly discounts the fact that his life was taken prematurely, and that he didn't even get to atone for his reprehensible behavior to his daughter for God's sake.

So Lester's managed to basically devolve into a responsibility-free hippie, let his wife turn into a basket case who hates him, and let his daughter run off with a drug dealer and hate him to the point where she doesn't really care that her father has died. But his spirit is content in the closing, posthumous narration, because there's "so much beauty in the world." In most movies, this beauty would have something to do with bonds between human beings, but for Lester, it's memories of family members who now hate him, and the image of a plastic bag floating around, which he never actually saw in the movie. And all we are is dust in the wind, or something. I hope that in the afterlife, he finally finds contentment in his new boss (Lucifer), his new house (the Chasm of Horrors), his new job (fashion model for barbed wire), and his new wife (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi).

Yes, I get it. Frank thinks they're gay, so there's a gigantic garden hose between them. You still suck, movie. You will always suck.

You might have figured out that I don't think much of this movie's philosophy. Basically, Lester goes from a failed family man to a successful hedonist, and that's supposed to be a good thing. He rebels against everyone and everything he finds distasteful, because obviously the world's going to be just fine if everyone chills out, gets high, and lusts after a Girls Gone Wild wannabe. And Ricky... I don't even want to talk about Ricky. Let me just say that it takes a lot to make a likable character out of an unrepentant drug dealer who spies on other people with a video camera and is completely unmoved by a friend's death. And the movie doesn't even come close.
So why is this movie so popular, both among Hollywood elite (it won the bleeding Best Picture Oscar) and filmgoers (as of this writing, it's #38 all-time on IMDB user voting)? I have a few theories:

  1. Fight the establishment, man. This is a movie by ex-hippies for ex-hippies. It begins with the correct premise that a lot of former hippies/anarchists/radicals (not to necessarily lump them all together) have grown up and become suburbanites with white collar jobs. And then it basically sympathizes with the idea of a guy returning to his former life of total irresponsibility, followed by a brief realization of abstract contentment with the universe.

  2. Wish fulfillment. Lester smokes weed, tells off his boss, snaps at his wife, and openly lusts after a teenage sexpot. I'm sure that there is a fair number of middle-aged men out there who would like to do a few of those things if they were less inhibited, or if they didn't care about things like consequences or responsibilities. Maybe in 15 years, I'll be more sympathetic to Lester myself. In which case I just pray there's a Frank around to blow my brains out.

  3. Hahaha--look at the dumb homophobic army man. Not to defend the Frank Fitts character, who really is a creep, but for a lot of film critics, you get a pass if you demonize someone belonging to a group that you basically dislike. Frank's a conservative, homophobic, self-loathing gay who's proud of his military service. Check, check, check, and check. And Carolyn also takes career success seriously, albeit too seriously, so she's also pretty much fair game for ridicule. Because movie stars are the only ones who should be allowed to take their careers seriously.

  4. The title begins with the word American, and it's absolutely required that movies starting with that title be good. Not so much because the country's so awesome (although it is), but because it brings a stodgy sense of worldliness and self-awareness that makes film critics swoon. And honestly, most of these movies are good. Except for this one. And An American Werewolf in London actually kinda sucked too.

In the end, I have to congratulate Sam Mendes and Alan Ball on the courage of their convictions. Studio executives exerted pressure on them to include at least one sympathetic character. But the filmmakers stuck to their guns, and delivered their vision of characters who have hardly any resemblance to actual human beings, none of whom engenders the slightest sympathy from a viewer who doesn’t share their complete contempt for civilization. If you met Josef Stalin and Lester Burnham on the street, you’d ask Joe to hold Lester down while you beat the crap out of him. I’ll grant that Kevin Spacey is talented enough that a few of his sarcastic comments gave me a chuckle, but in the end, I'm left with a movie that irritated me, often bored me, made me hate everyone involved in its creation, and taught me nothing that will bring any value to my life.

Kevin Spacey is Ian Fleming's James Bond 007 in Beauty for a Die.

Maybe I just can't appreciate all the beauty in the world. Or maybe I'd just rather watch movies with a moral core and positive message, like fellow 1999 Best Picture nominees The Green Mile and The Sixth Sense, than watch multiple scenes of Kevin Spacey masturbating.

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