Film Review: American Beauty

This review of American Beauty was written in 2010. I republish it today because I stand by the underlying arguments about the film, as well as my remarks on Laura Mulvey’s specious concept of the “male gaze.” I would not write this piece today in the same manner that I did in 2010, as I think that the growing sense of exasperation can overpower the actual arguments.

american-beauty-1999

Film Review: American Beauty

Why is it that these movies about miserable WASPs in suburbia always have to have someone die at the end of the film? Oh, yes. It’s because instead of being dramatic pieces that really explore these characters, these films are usually melodramas that have to have a ‘big moment’ that emotionally affects the audience. Though released years after the subject of this essay, American Beauty (1999), the film Lymelife (2008) was similar in that it featured a fairly humourless white family struggling with their own unhappiness in their suburban environment. The father also gets shot at the end of the film. Rather than accuse the writer of Lymelife with ripping off American Beauty, I think this is simply a result of un-great minds thinking alike. The fact is, American Beauty is a very formulaic film, both in its script and its cinematic execution, and this is why so many of its components are recognizable.

The film opens with a video recording of actress Thora Birch, who plays Jane. She is in conversation with a male voice who is later revealed to be her boyfriend, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley); they are talking (jokingly, we later find out) about killing her father, who Jane describes as a bit of a loser. Following this introductory scene, her father Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey) begins a voice-over narration where he indicates that he is narrating as a dead man, and that what is unfolding in front of the audience is to detail the events up to his death. Therefore, the ‘ending’ of the film is already revealed, leaving the audience to wonder how he comes to end up dead. This setup wouldn’t be a problem if the film were truly a character-driven piece; as it is, the characters are stereotypes, and the film indulges in melodrama and is a slave to ‘plot’ in order to reach the conclusion of Lester’s death.  Greater creative talents could have done so much more with the premise.

The Burnham family are all selfish and unlikable characters; each of them are entirely focused on themselves and give little thought to the other members of their household. This unlikeable quality does not make them inappropriate subjects for a film, but they are all so narcissistic, and their problems so self-induced, that it becomes impossible to really sympathize with them. And sympathize is what this film would like us to do, though I’d argue that it is hard to even empathize with them, since these creations don’t truly resemble real people. Lester is yet another office worker who hates his dull job (a recurring figure in contemporary American film).  His marriage is a loveless one, and his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) keeps her libido in the freezer, leaving Lester to become infatuated with Jane’s high school companion, Angela (Mena Suvari). Carolyn is an uptight, superficial and materialistic bitch who is not very good at her job in real estate, and who engages in an extra-marital affair to quell her own unhappiness. Her desire to divorce Lester is thwarted by Lester’s threat that if she did so, she would owe him half of what she owns. Her new interest in shooting guns at a firing range, combined with her mounting discontent, suggest that she could be Lester’s eventual murderer. Carolyn is the standard “bourgeois dupe” character, mocked for being oblivious to her own privilege and absurdity. In one scene, when accusing her daughter of being a spoiled brat, Carolyn shouts that she grew up in duplex and that her family didn’t even own their own home! And here you thought growing up in the ghetto was tough.

Daughter Jane is an undistinguished, miserable teenager, and Ricky is the ‘weird kid’ at school and her love interest.  Ricky gets low-paying server jobs as a cover for his real employment as a drug dealer, which is quite lucrative for him. He hides this secret life from his parents, the father being a fanatically strict ex-Marine Colonel, and the mother appearing to be in a permanent state of confusion.  Mena Suvari plays Jane’s friend Angela, a fairly shallow cheerleader and aspiring model, though Mena Suvari’s good looks are more cute-girl-next-door than either model or porn-cheerleader fantasy. This actually adds believability to the character, as it shows that Angela is unremarkable, even as she admits that she thinks nothing is worse than being ordinary. Her girlishness is also a nice contrast to Lester’s fantasies of her as a more womanly sex-goddess; his concept of her is as far from reality as her own.

The younger characters are as superficial, and superficially drawn, as the adult characters. Though Jane and Ricky think of themselves as being ‘different,’ they really aren’t. Ricky is frequently shown filming members of the Burnham family; at one point, he shows Jane ‘the most beautiful thing’ he’s ever filmed, which features nothing beyond a plastic bag blowing in the wind. As is typical with bad artists, Ricky has his own ‘profound’ explanation for the meaning behind the image of the bag, which, like most conceptual art, is inherently meaningless and boring in absence of an outside explanation. After talking about a ‘benevolent force’ who wanted him to know that ‘there was no reason to be afraid, ever,’ he gets weepy as he declares that sometimes there is ‘so much beauty’ in the world, and that it is ‘too much for him.’ Cue the first kiss between the couple. This scene was later mocked, rightly, by Todd Solondz in his superior film on both suburbia and spoiled brats entitled Storytelling (2001). Ricky’s terrible ‘film’ has showed that he has no real ideas, while Jane is just another petulant brat in suburbia who sulks and makes the standard gestures towards being ‘an outsider.’ If Angela knows, on some level, that she is ordinary and fears such ordinariness, she is at least more honest with herself than her poseur friends.

The ‘dancing bag’ is just one example of how the film’s characters are too ridiculous be taken seriously. Though the film might like the audience to root for Lester, following his ‘liberation’ from his supplicant role to his wife, it is hard to do such for a character who is so obviously bitter, and who is as mean and selfish as his wife and daughter. In this, Spacey does a good job of capturing the essence of his character; out of all of the Oscar wins that this film received, Spacey’s, for Best Actor, may be the only one that is deserved. Otherwise, the character is just the stereotypical middle aged man going through a mid-life crisis. After all, he does all the things such a character is supposed to do: buying a ‘younger’ car, quitting his job, chasing teenage pussy, smoking pot, singing along to the rock music of his youth in the car, etc. He even gets a ‘joe job’ at a local fast food joint, which he covets because thinks he will have less responsibility than his office job. This is an out-of-touch fantasy—as if there is no responsibility or real work to be done in food service jobs. A minimum-wage job has appeal to Lester only because he has the luxury of not having to actually manage on such impoverished wages. It is also hard to feel sorry for someone who has a comfortable, if dull, office job that pays for a nice house in a clean suburb where there are quaint gay neighbours who prepare welcome baskets full of flowers. Of course, the film doesn’t bother to explore this, as it is simply appealing to a mythical audience member who will sympathize with Lester because they, too, hate their office job. This approach, appearing in films of various genres, from Office Space (1999) to Wanted (2008), is tired and needs to be taken out into a field and smashed along with the old fax machine.

Beyond characterization that is so thin as to be anorexic, the film is also filled with contrived moments that appear in many American TV shows and films, such as characters singing along to popular songs in their cars in moments of self-empowerment (evoking Tom Cruise belting out Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” in some other Oscar-winning detritus), or Lester reacting to the news of Angela sleeping over at his house by spitting out his beverage.  These examples of stock behaviours, and others, just support my argument that American Beauty is not about how real people think and act, in suburbia or elsewhere. The film simply plays into preconceived ideas about the various character types presented, whether it be the precocious and brooding teenager played by Birch (she did it better in Ghost World), or her frigid bitch mother, or her mid-life crisis dad. Therefore, it is natural to have them go through the artificial motions of sitcom behaviour.

Though the main characters in the Burnham family are all heterosexual, the film is sticky with homoerotic images and a rather Politically Correct gay agenda, to the point where I wondered whether the writer of the film was gay. The screenwriter is Alan Ball, later responsible for writing hit TV shows such as Six Feet Under and True Blood; biographical details provided on the web appear to confirm my hunch.  I mention the sexuality of the screenwriter not because such has any impact on the artistic value of the movie; instead, I bring it up because the thinking behind American Beauty is so predictable that I was quickly able to start forming a picture of what kind of a hack would be responsible for it. It’s sort of like how you can read a novel or a poem and instantly tell that the writer is a graduate of an MFA program, and what stream of Politically Correct thought they crawled out of. And it is really the screenwriting that is responsible for the badness of American Beauty, which is why Ball deserves to be singled out.

The issue, of course, is not the fact that the film deals with homosexuality, but the way it does so, namely that Ball sticks to trite and superficial ideas about homophobia. The uptight, conservative Frank Fitts (played by Chris Cooper), who utters gay slurs and is comforted by his son Ricky’s reiteration of the same, inevitably turns out to be a closet homosexual, conforming to the simplistic view that all heterosexuals who express homophobic sentiments are repressed homosexuals themselves. This is a political fantasy with little insight into what really motivates this type of discrimination.

Then there is the actual revelation of Frank’s sexual orientation towards the end of the film. After mistakenly assuming that Ricky and Lester are sexually involved, when they are merely conducting drug transactions, Frank disowns his son.  (Earlier it almost did seem as if the two would hook up; when Ricky asks Lester if he ‘parties’ when they first meet at an event, it almost seems like he’s suggesting some gay party-and-play, instead of smoking a joint out back, which is actually what happens.) Distressed, Frank wanders over to Lester’s garage in the rain, where after some brief dialogue and an embrace, he kisses Lester, who rejects his advances. While this scene is necessary for the plot (now Frank’s homophobia can reassert itself, leading him to shoot Lester and ‘surprise’ the audience, who suspected Carolyn would do the deed), it is an action that is completely unrealistic for the character. It seems unlikely to me that someone who is supposedly this sexually repressed would risk himself emotionally so quickly by attempting to kiss another man. In reality, the more affectionate and sensual types of contact, as opposed to the more purely sexual ones, tend to be verboten for those who are sexually repressed, as they evoke more complex feelings.

Aside from all of this, a film about a middle-aged man indulging in his fantasies about a teenage girl fails to penetrate the straight male imagination. Lester’s fantasies of Angela are silly and strangely PG-13 given that Lester is clearly in lust, and not love, with Angela. Rose petals always seem to be getting in the way whenever he daydreams about Angela flashing her tits or taking a bath. When female nudity finally does appear, with Thora Birch and Mena Suvari briefly exposing their breasts, it is not particularly erotic. The real preoccupation in this film is with male bodies, whether Kevin Spacey’s, Wes Bentley’s, or the nauseatingly white-bread gay neighbours that Lester jogs with in order to score some work-out tips.

For anyone who ever studied film theory, there’s also a ‘cute’ scene where Jane, who has been the subject of Ricky’s videos, sometimes consenting, sometimes not, takes control of the ‘male gaze’ by taking the camera from him and filming him while he sits nude.  The idea of the ‘male gaze,’ perpetuated by an infamous article in the 1970s by Laura Mulvey called “Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema,” is an idea that still persisted when I was a Cinema Studies student three decades later. Convoluted both in its prose and its pseudo-psychoanalytic method, Mulvey’s article ignored the fact that stereotypical depictions of women in Hollywood cinema are the product of bad art, and thus the conventional thinking of the creators, and not merely the inherent sexism of most men or male-dominated filmmaking. The reason Mulvey’s article focused on Hollywood narratives is because patterns could be discerned through studying their formulaic narratives. The writing in most Hollywood films lacks the depth and artistry found in the work of superior screenwriters like Woody Allen or Ingmar Bergman, whose work, and depictions of women in particular, are more singular in comparison. With formulaic writing comes formulaic characters, including female characters who inevitably fall into stereotypical positions.  American Beauty is simply another film based on trite approaches to writing, characterization and cinematography.  While some might argue that this film tried to ‘subvert the male gaze’, such is really irrelevant; it completely fails to subvert the conventions of bad art.

One of the major ways it does this is through veering into melodrama. Carolyn, depicted as a hysterical and shrill individual, often appears in the most melodramatic episodes. In one ridiculous scene where Carolyn expresses her unhappiness with her job, she stands big-coiffed and silhouetted against shut blinds, crying loudly and slapping herself. Her final appearance at the end of the film is particularly bad. Entering her bedroom after Lester’s murder and soaked from the rain, she throws her gun-containing purse in a hamper and then clutches at her dead husband’s wardrobe, wailing. That she would react this way makes no sense given that she spent much of the film barking at her husband and sleeping with another man. The only reason she seemed to stay in the marriage was because of Lester’s threat—so then why the theatrics? She’s now free to bang as many real estate agents as she wants!

When not melodramatic, the film can be outright stupid. At the film’s close, there’s a goofy moment where, upon discovering Lester’s body, Ricky tilts his head and ponders the look on Lester’s face, before smiling. You see, Lester himself has a small smile on his blood streaked face—he finally found peace from his self-created suburban hell! Death is evidently preferable to a bit of middle-class angst. Ricky then recovers from this revelation and becomes serious again, remarking, “Wow.”  With Alan Ball providing such profound character insights, you might as well forget Shakespearean soliloquies!

Director Sam Mendes does nothing to relieve the viewer from the dull and lightweight script. The only other Mendes feature I have seen is Revolutionary Road (2008), where the Kate Winslet character also comes to a bloody end, though not via gunshot. It was yet another tale of unhappy people in suburbia where Mendes took no risks, cinematically. Like that Richard Yates adaptation, American Beauty looks like a typical television drama; there are not really any virtuoso ‘filmic’ moments that come to mind when recalling the film. This would be acceptable if the film were at least atypical narratively, but with its predictable plotting and shallow characterization, the film is an utterly forgettable product of conventional thinking. It shows how bad most Hollywood cinema was in the late 20th century that this film would be mistaken for a serious adult drama.

For all these films set in suburbia, there is no genuine exploration of what suburbia is, and why it is so alienating—that in its current manifestation, suburbs are not designed with community or the needs of actual people in mind, and that amid the endless maze of house-lined streets, there is nowhere for anybody to go. To escape to either natural expanse or densely populated diversions, one must drive out of the sprawl.  Instead, films like American Beauty provide the usual glibness and condescension towards the characters, as though the inhabitants of suburbia are as ‘artificial’ as the suburban constructs themselves, and as if people who live in rural or urban environments live more ‘authentic’ lives. American Beauty has nothing of value to impart artistically or philosophically, and it ends up being another worthless contribution to the arts from Hollywood cinema—all of which makes American Beauty something quite ugly.

This review previously appeared on Cosmoetica under the pseudonym Anthony Zanetti.

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