I’m going to start off the bat by saying many of the elements that contributed to American Beauty‘s commercial and (limited) creative success still hold up: Kevin Spacey’s fantastic performance as Lester Burnham, Conrad Hall’s breathtaking cinematography, even Sam Mendes’s direction (though he has yet to repeat this with as much success). Really, the thing that sinks it when I recently plucked it off my DVD shelf to watch—for the first time since probably 2000—is its Oscar-winning screenplay.
Granted, Alan Ball is no Diablo Cody, but there’s something so…I guess the politest way to put it is “obvious” about the characters, the satire, and each characters’ storyline. I really enjoyed this movie when it first hit theatres, so I can’t know if the problem is me getting older and more worldly (making me realize that the cardboard-cutout characters are more stereotype than archetype) or if it’s the prism of time reflecting a big brown blob of shit rather than a pretty rainbow.
To deal with the latter argument: many movies have come out since 1999 that have been pale imitations of American Beauty. The only one I can think of that comes close is The Secret Lives of Dentists, and even that’s not as good. So it’s not a problem of American Beauty being eclipsed by its own imitators and therefore losing relevance. Maybe it’s the problem of the transformation of the world (or, at the very least, this country) over the past (almost-)decade that makes American Beauty‘s dysfunctional but optimistic message feel a little far-fetched. I can’t say.
The beginning of the end is the opening of the movie: Thora Birch, on video, asking…that dude who seemed to disappear off the face of the planet (unseen because he’s the videographer) to kill her dad. This moment is all but meaningless in the storyline: it’s not really a murder mystery, and call me crazy, but the instant we see that, you pretty much know she didn’t do it. So why’s it there? A remnant of the edited-out cliché of a courtroom framing device, in which (allegedly; I’ve never read the screenplay) Chris Cooper allows his son to take the blame for his own crime. I’ve gotta say, it definitely improved the movie that they cut it out, but why leave this one artifact that has very little to do with anything? Mendes doesn’t attempt to build any suspense out of the idea that Birch and her creepy boyfriend have any interest in really killing him; the movie’s not even a murder mystery of any kind. It’s a year-in-the-life where you know upfront that the year will end with Kevin Spacey’s death. (And you know that upfront from his introductory voiceover, making the goofy video-voyeur opening even more unnecessary.)
In many cases—Annette Bening’s shrill performance, which was even annoying and over-the-top in 1999, is a glaring exception—the strength of the performances masks the bland characterization and unimpressive story. Looking at it again, it’s hard to not notice how pat everything is: Chris Cooper as the southern-redneck ex-military homophobe who’s secretly struggling with, or at least trying to deny, his own sexuality (double-stereotype—score!); Annette Bening as the focused career gal whose resentment of her family and obsession with work manifests itself in the silliest affair in cinematic history; Thora Birch’s desperation to finance a boob job despite her most notable asset—in high school terms—being her gargantuan bazongas; Mena Suvari’s shallow teenager existing solely to occupy Spacey’s fantasies and undermine Birch’s confidence; Wes Bentley (yeah, I looked up his name) as the “outcast,” a voyeurism-obsessed neighborhood pot dealer; and Allison Janney as a distant, either-crazy-or-a-drunk wife trapped in a loveless marriage.
Is there anything here that hasn’t been seen before and done better elsewhere? I’ll toss out the random example of Parenthood, Ron Howard’s 1989 dramedy that utilized many of these ideas but in much more nuanced ways. Hell, pretty much every moment involving the teens was done better in any John Hughes movie you can think of (except maybe Uncle Buck). And it’s here where I kind of hit on the biggest problem with American Beauty: it’s a sign of the exact time in which it was made and nothing more. That’s why it doesn’t hold up nearly a decade later, while movies that are now between 20 and 25 years old do hold up.
In any given John Hughes movie you’re subjected to synth-pop, legwarmers, and goofy slang, but the core of the movies—the story and characters—still hold up, not just as nostalgia pieces or cynical reflections of the times, but as reflections of timeless teen themes. Sure, maybe nowadays all kids have cell phones and IMs, so they might not relate to tactics like throwing rocks at the window of a girl you like (which I don’t think ever actually happened in a John Hughes movie, but it does happen in the awesome Breaking Away, another great but old film about teen angst and small-town disaffection) when they could just “txt” them, but they can relate to the angst and fear involved in actions like that.
To double back to the adult characters, the only one whose journey is truly interesting is Burnham’s. Granted, we need the cheesy “confused” homophobe and the irritating wife (and even the stereotypical cheerleader-who-knows-she’s-hot-shit-and-wants-to-be-a-model) to lead to the cynical ending, but why can’t we get a little nuance? What do we ever learn about Cooper (and his wife, and his kid) that we don’t expect? Same question could be applied to every other “supporting” character. Doubling up on stereotypes and obvious traits doesn’t count as nuance or subtlety. I think the only unexpected thing is Birch’s obsession with the boob job, because it doesn’t seem like something she’d obsess over. Especially when the person undermining her confidence is boobless Mena Suvari; you’d think she’d be more obsessed with developing an even-more-clichéd eating disorder. So hey, they have that going for them.
I think the ending is still moderately interesting, in that it’s ambiguous (the “trial” framing device would have robbed it of this ambiguity). Burnham realizes his life is pretty awesome, and then—BLAM! So is that a cruel and unjust world, robbing him of life just as he’s starting to realize how good he has it, or is it a just world, allowing him to die in his first moment of true happiness since his youth, riding around in a bad-ass hot-rod? I think the original version, with Bentley going to jail, would have reenforced the “cruel and unjust world” side of things. Thematically, the ending of the actual movie supports the overall idea that everyone’s looking for happiness (or beauty, if you prefer) in the wrong places, which is a nice if unsubtle message.
When it was originally released, its endlessly-repeated tagline was LOOK CLOSER. Watching it again, looking closer only creates problems. It’s too bad, because I really did like this movie in 1999. Then again, full disclosure: back then, I wanted Being John Malkovich to win it all at the Oscars (even though it ended up only getting three nominations and won none of them), and I still think it should have. It’s much weirder on the surface, but it asks many of the same questions American Beauty does (notably about looking for happiness in the wrong places, i.e. in Malkovich’s portal), but it both asks and answers these questions in more interesting ways.