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Posts in: December 24th, 2010

American Beauty (1999)

The year 1999 changed my life. When I wasn’t busy working on my Y2K bunker, I saw a ton of movies, and holy shit was 1999 a great year for cinema. As a wide-eyed 18-year-old desperately wanting his mind (among other things) blown on a regular basis, I couldn’t ask for anything more than the laundry list of great films released in that year: Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, Go, The Blair Witch Project, Magnolia, The Matrix, Boys Don’t Cry, Election, Dogma, Fight Club, The Insider, The Iron Giant, The Limey, The Sixth Sense, Summer of Sam, Topsy-Turvy—hell, even October Sky and The Straight Story are great family films. Not all these films are necessarily brilliant (even at the time), not all of them hold up, but they all have three things in common: ambition, artistry, and a unique point of view. I have 1999 in film to blame for seeing the medium as an art form rather than a commerce platform, for going to film school, and for the phrase “Metzler, You Betzler!” (which I quoted loudly and enthusiastically as recently as last week).

Upon its initial release, three things about American Beauty stood out: Kevin Spacey’s fantastic performance, Conrad Hall’s breathtaking yet eerie cinematography, and Sam Mendes’s lyrical direction. I liked the film when I initially saw it, and it stuck with me enough to make it one of my first DVD purchases in 2000 (though it helped that the price was steeply discounted). Oddly, it’s a film I liked enough to own at the time but never contemplated rewatching in the intervening 10 years, until about six months ago. I thought, I haven’t seen this in some time. I’ll check it out and see how it holds up. The short answer: It doesn’t.

I can’t quite determine if the change came from me, aging from an innocent 18-year-old to a curmudgeonly 29-year-old, or if the problem lies in the dozens of “suburban malaise” imitators released in its wake. I think it might just be a natural evolution, because the only one of those imitators I saw was The Secret Lives of Dentists, and I wouldn’t say its dullness retroactively caused me to dislike what’s regarded as a sterling example of this type of film. Maybe American Beauty simply permeated the culture to such a degree that its influence affected even non-imitators. Whatever the case, I outgrew the film’s surprisingly one-dimensional portrait of suburbia—but what about all the oldsters who loved it back in ’99, hailing it a masterpiece as it won every award in the book and became the subject of stuffy academic theses? What’s their excuse?

The storyline, for those of you who missed out on the publicity blitz, follows Lester Burnham (Spacey), a deeply unhappy salesman whose life changes dramatically when two things happen almost simultaneously: first, he gets “downsized”; second, he gets bonered up at the sight of Angela (Mena Suvari), a girl on his daughter’s cheerleading squad. In what’s effectively a cheerful midlife crisis, Lester decides to tap into all the primitive, hormonal urges that drove him in high school. He starts working out, smoking pot, and gets a low-stress job at a fast-food drive-thru. He also attempts, without much subtlety, to woo Angela, whose slutty-girl persona both arouses and intrigues him.

Not surprisingly, Lester’s behavior causes conflict with his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening, whose performance even seemed shrill and over-the-top in 1999 and doesn’t improve with age), and sullen daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). Lester’s behavior drives Carolyn to have the silliest affair in cinematic history (with former business rival Buddy Kane, played with goofy relish by Peter Gallagher). Jane, already needlessly obsessed with getting a boob job, is driven into the arms of creepy new neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley—what the hell happened to him?), the voyeurism-obsessed new neighbor who has an enviable VHS collection financed by secretly dealing pot. Ricky’s father, Frank (Chris Cooper) is a loudly homophobic Marine colonel, so needless to say he’ll turn out to be repressing secret gay urges before long. He’s in a loveless marriage with Barbara (Allison Janney), who’s either crazy or an alcoholic (possibly both!).

When I rewatched American Beauty, the problems started in the opening seconds. It opens with grainy, handheld video (recorded by Ricky) of Jane, talking about how she’d like to kill her father. This sort of opening would fit a murder mystery, but that’s not really what American Beauty is, and any notion that Jane would have anything to do with killing Lester is dispelled within about five minutes. The film isn’t about—narratively or thematically—Lester’s murder, so why open with this nonlinear moment? The film wisely excised a framing device in the script in which Ricky is on trial for Lester’s murder, and it feels like this opening is a remnant of that framing device more than a sensible way to open what’s basically a satirical slice-of-life with a shocking ending. The movie doesn’t feature any shifty-eyed characters petting guns to indicate they want to murder Lester. Mendes makes no effort to mine suspense from the possibility of his murder.

A more significant problem than nitpicking the opening sequence (seriously, though, if anyone can explain its function, I will gladly refute the previous paragraph) are the characters themselves. Each character’s development is odd, to say the least. We get to know them in very basic, Syd Field-approved ways: We learn their goals, the obstacles that prevent them from achieving those goals, and their desire to overcome those obstacles. We gain just enough insight into their personalities to allow the plot to turn on their character flaws.

In many cases—Bening’s awful performance is a glaring exception—the strength of the ensemble does a pretty good job of masking the bland characterization and unimpressive story. Looking at it again, it’s hard to ignore how pat everything is: Frank as the southern-redneck ex-military homophobe who’s secretly struggling with, or at least trying to deny, his own homosexuality (triple-stereotype—score!); Carolyn as the focused career gal whose resentment of her family and obsession with work leads to an affair; Jane’s desperation to finance a boob job despite her most notable asset—in high school terms—being her gargantuan bazongas; Angela’s shallow sexpot existing solely to occupy Lester’s fantasies and undermine Jane’s confidence before the predictable twist that she was a virgin all along; Ricky as the “outcast,” the quietly rebellious son of a stern, abusive authority figure; and Barbara as a distant wife trapped in a loveless marriage.

Even with the great performances, the characters never go beyond surface-deep, obvious caricatures. The film’s tagline was LOOK CLOSER, but there’s nothing there. They lack the necessary shading to make them transcend stereotypes and feel like living, breathing people with goals that go beyond the expected. (The only one who comes close is Jane, whose fixation on her breasts seems a strange way to react to scrawny Angela shattering her confidence—developing an eating disorder would be the more banal route, so I guess kudos go to Alan Ball for not being obvious 100% of the time.) This, then, causes the story itself—which wants to be little more than a character-driven slice-of-life—to feel a bit shallow, until the shocking murder that serves little purpose other than to muddy the thematic waters and make the film seem much more complex than it actually is.

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 the same 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 over 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 signs of the times (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 such “dated” actions.

I guess the film’s ending is still moderately interesting, in that it’s ambiguous (the “trial” framing device would have robbed it of this ambiguity). Lester 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? I think the script’s original ending, which has Ricky 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.

Maybe American Beauty perfectly encapsulated a very specific time and place in this country (I don’t think it did, but your mileage may vary), but it fails to resonate today, even as a relic of a bygone era. Films like Election and Being John Malkovich—both released in 1999—bear thematic similarities but do a much better job with the ideas than American Beauty‘s clumsy, cliché-ridden handling.

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Jingle All the Way (1996)

Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Rainier Wolfcastle is being interviewed by Kent Brockman about his latest film, in which he plays a father who visits his son at college and is horrified to learn he’s a nerd. When Brockman says, “I’m laughing already,” Wolfcastle says stoically, “It’s not a comedy.” In a better world, Jingle All the Way would also not be a comedy. As I watched it, I imagined the possibilities of this story—a lone man trying to get a Christmas toy for his beloved son—retold through the prism of star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s usual ultraviolent, hard-R theatrics. By this point in his career, Schwarzenegger had become the cuddliest pituitary case on the planet, eschewing direct-to-video obscurity by playing up his popularity with children and making light Ivan Reitman comedies full of adorable moppets and pregnant men. Even his most famous villain became a good guy and child protector in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The fact that Jingle All the Way plays like a live-action cartoon aimed at children should have surprised nobody upon its release in 1996. However, it’s a film of such crass cynicism, I wish it had gone to even darker extremes with its ideas, some of which are actually pretty interesting.

The film stars Schwarzenegger as Howard Langston, a workaholic who tries to make up for years of neglect by buying his son, Jamie (Jake Lloyd), a Turbo Man action figure. On Christmas Eve Day. Naturally, all the stores are sold out, which leads Howard to pathetic extremes. He gets involved in an enormous brawl over a lottery drawing for the town’s last shipment of Turbo Man figures. A suspicious mall Santa (James Belushi) takes Howard to a secret sweatshop run by all the mall Santas in the Twin Cities, where they sell him a Mexican knockoff Turbo Man for $300. This sequence leads to one of the film’s strangest moments, in which Howard delivers merciless beatings to the Santas with a novelty-sized candy cane.

Howard reluctantly teams up with single-dad Myron Larabee (Sinbad), an unstable postman willing to sell out Howard at every turn to get a Turbo Man for his own child. Their rivalry/friendship occupies most of the film’s runtime, as they commiserate before racing to the next possible Turbo Man destination. This eventually builds to such insanity as Howard fighting with a vicious reindeer (no, really) and inadvertently setting fire to smarmy neighbor Ted’s (Phil Hartman, not surprisingly the film’s lone bright spot) house trying to steal the Turbo Man under his tree. Ted’s busy trying to put the moves on Liz (Rita Wilson), Howard’s perturbed wife.

Finally, Howard stumbles into the staging area of the city’s Christmas parade, where he’s mistaken for a fill-in Turbo Man. They slap the costume (which, for cartoon-logic reasons, includes fully functional weaponry and a jet pack) on him, stick a Turbo Man action figure in his hands, and shove him out onto the float. Meanwhile, Myron dresses up like Turbo Man’s villain, Dementor, and attempts to steal the Turbo Man action figure. When Howard gives it to Jamie (who, again for cartoon-logic reasons, doesn’t recognize the only musclebound Austrian in Minnesota as his own father—if he were Swedish, I might have bought that), Myron chases Jamie through the rooftops of Minneapolis, nearly killing a small child in pursuit of a Christmas gift.

This is the sort of cynical world in which Jingle All the Way takes place, and hopefully you have a sense of why I wish it had gone darker and more extreme with the material. Inspired by the Cabbage Patch Kid frenzy of the ’80s, the film predated the Tickle-Me Elmo fad by a few months—the perfect time to make an actual statement about the absurd consumer patterns and lemming mentality in this country. Instead, the film tries to work as a sunny cartoon, the sort of film where a bomb explodes and the next shot shows the man holding the bomb, face blackened with soot, hair tousled, eyes wide with confusion and dismay. The cartoonish tone does nothing to dull the film’s cynicism, which gives the whole film a strangely passive-aggressive feel. Clearly, the filmmakers see the inherent insanity in holiday shopping, lending the film an undercurrent of anger and disapproval, but they don’t have the guts to make a statement about it. It’s a film that’s mad as hell but will still take it until such time as it’s willing to discuss the possibility of not taking it anymore.

Maybe it works as a colorful cartoon for kids. I have a dim recollection of kids liking the film a great deal when it came out. I have to assume the film’s blackened edges have something to do with it trying to appeal to adults, but it falls flat. Unlike something like Home Alone (directed by Chris Columbus, whose company produced this film), Jingle All the Way has no humanity for adults to sink their teeth into. Daffy Duck has more relatable human traits than Howard Langston, and that’s a problem the film never attempts to overcome.

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Prancer (1989)

If you spend the holidays weary and depressed, wishing you could take a sucker-punch to the gut that might make you feel a little bit better about your own life, do I have the movie for you! Prancer is a staggeringly great film on its own merits, but it’s impossible to imagine happy families gathering together to watch it. It’s not really a film that exists to be enjoyed so much as endured, like a marathon of domestic abuse and mind-bending sadness.

In an impressively natural performance, Rebecca Harrell stars as Jessie Riggs, daughter of an Indiana apple farmer (Sam Elliott in one of his best performances) who struggles to put non-apple food on the table as much as he struggles with being a single father to an eight-year-old girl he doesn’t wholly understand. Jessie clings to her belief in the power of Christmas and Santa Claus—late in the film, father John grouses that she plays Christmas records year-round—despite all evidence to the contrary. In a poignant scene emblematic of the tone, richness of character and theme, and utter despair of this film, Jessie’s best friend, Carol (Ariana Richards), announces she no longer believes in Santa Claus, which Jessie counters by saying, “If Santa’s not real, then God’s not real.” When Carol suggests maybe that, too, is true, Jessie cries that if God’s not real, heaven’s not real, and if heaven’s not real—where did her mother go?

One night, Jessie tries to run away (a recurring theme with her). In the forest, she sees a reindeer and convinces herself it’s Prancer, one of Santa’s reindeer, who got lost. It disappears like a UFO, which confirms her suspicions of its magical powers. In the distance, she hears a rifle shot, but before she can investigate, John appears, chewing her out for “taking a walk” (he’s as delusional as she is) at night, when hunters have secret off-season deer stands set up all over the woods. While driving her back home, John announces his only choice is to shuffle her off to her Aunt Sarah, who can provide all the things he can’t. Despite her contentious relationship with John, Jessie sees this as a fate worse than death. Before she can argue, the reindeer appears in the middle of the snow-covered road, wounded from the shot heard earlier. John pulls out his own rifle, prepared to put the reindeer out of its misery, and as Jessie violently protests, the reindeer disappears again. John’s as stunned as Jessie, but he has to believe in a logical explanation.

Soon enough, Jessie finds the reindeer grazing in the barn. She hides it in an abandoned farmhand cabin, feeds it Christmas cookies and hay, and attempts to nurse it back to health. She enlists the aid of the local vet (Abe Vigoda) and does chores for the local scary lady (Cloris Leachman, who lives in an enormous, filthy house) in order to pay for oats. Before long, Jessie makes the mistake of asking a mall Santa (Michael Constantine) to pass a message along to the real Santa—she has Prancer, and he’ll be ready to fly on Christmas Eve, so he needs to meet her at Antler Ridge. The mall Santa immediately takes the story to the local paper, which leads to innocuous family pilgrimages to the Riggs farm. Once John realizes what Jessie has done, he sells the reindeer to the local Christmas tree salesman and shores up plans to send her to Aunt Sarah.

Even as the third act attempts to warm the hearts of viewers, Prancer never loses its grim sense of realism. The film never makes it entirely clear if Prancer flew or merely dove off the cliff at Antler Ridge (in actuality, Illinois’s own Starved Rock) to a grisly death, but that’s not what the film is about. Without ever overstating it, the film has less to do with the magic of Christmas than the power of faith—in Santa and Prancer, in God and heaven, and in the idea that Jessie’s life might improve as she learns to deal with the horrendous loss of her mother and life in a family where she’s not really unloved but also not really cared for.

Prancer is a wonderful film, but it’s not for anyone who wants to spend Christmas happy. “Less miserable” is the best it can do for the already-miserable, and it’ll just bring happy folks down. Nevertheless, if you want to feel an authentic emotional experience and a renewed sense of faith, you won’t do any better than this film. Even the venerable masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life—itself incredibly downbeat until its last few minutes—doesn’t plunder such dark depths or explore weighty themes with such subtlety and grace.

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