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.