Friday, November 26, 2010

AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999): Yuppie Angst

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who narrates to us that he will be dead within a year, is going through a terrible mid-life crisis.  While most middle-aged men respond to this by buying a motorcycle, Lester quits his job as a lowly journalist (though he still has plenty of money to live in an affluent suburb), takes on a job as cashier in a fast food joint, starts smoking dope, and makes plans to seduce a sixteen-year old cheerleader.  His good-looking wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), who apparently is no longer good enough looking for Lester, we are led to believe is a shrew.  She matches the color of her shoes with her gardening supplies showing her obsessive compulsiveness, works hard to be a successful real estate agent, considers her husband a failure and decides to have an affair of her own.  Their sixteen-year old daughter Jane (Thora Birch) feels neglected by her father, wants to have breast implants, and occasionally talks out loud about having her father killed.  Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the teenage boy who lives next door, who is abused by his father and shows about as much expression as a deer that has died with his eyes open, is in love with Jane.  He shows his love for her by secretly videotaping her from his bedroom window while she’s up in her room.  Ricky sells drugs to Lester on the side.  Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), is the cheerleader that Lester would like to seduce.  Angela, apparently ashamed of her own virginity, brags to her friends about all of the boys she has been with and encourages Lester to sleep with her.  By the way, Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), a marine who happens to be a latent homosexual, also has some feelings for Lester.

 It’s fortunate for Lester that he has so much wealth to indulge himself in his vices.  It affords him the opportunity to buy a new Firebird, to exercise by lifting weights, to take any job he pleases, to buy his drugs, and to pursue every passion.  Lester’s also glib enough to sass his way through every uncomfortable situation.  Witness the scripted lines he recites to his wife when he catches her in bed with her new lover.  Only one time does he ever seem to be concerned about anyone but himself, and he shows his concern in such a manner that he cannot be accused of committing statutory rape.  Lester gets Angela into bed, and we get to see him feel her up right before she tells him that she has never been with anyone before.  Then Lester decides that he’s no longer in the mood to have sex with her.  Granted, this is a rather dubious way to express one’s own sense of decency.  Lester’s decision not to sleep with Angela is unrelated to the fact that she is sixteen.  He simply has no desire to deflower a virgin.

But though there are no consequences for any of Lester’s actual acts, there does happen to be consequences for imagined acts that Lester performed.  The Colonel, while spying on Lester and Ricky involved in a drug transaction, misinterprets what they are doing together as a homosexual encounter.  Instead of calling the police, the Colonel decides to deliver a kiss to Lester to let him know that he is also interested.  However, when Lester tells the Colonel that he’s really not into guys, the Colonel disappears only to later return with a pistol that he uses to blow off the back of Lester’s head.  Ricky, who has now made preparations to run away with Jane, wanders in, discovers Lester’s body and somehow almost manages a smile.  The smile we are to assume is Ricky showing his admiration for what Lester attempted to accomplish at the end of his life (not quite like the pained expression I had on my face when this movie finally ended).

One movie critic called American Beauty the worst choice for best picture since Titanic.  Such talk is meaningless because, with all that’s been said about Academy Award Winning Material, it’s hard to explain what Academy Award Winning material truly is.  I can think of twenty-five or thirty movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture that were less deserving of its Oscar than Titanic.  There may have been five or six films less deserving than American Beauty.  Winning an Oscar should stand for little in any case.  If a movie is good, people will still care to watch it ten or twenty years from now.  Maybe a movie should aspire to do that rather than just appeal to a limited audience.

Director Sam Mendes aspirations could not have been lofty in making American Beauty.  This movie presumably was made by Yuppies for Yuppies, and it is about Yuppies growing old.  I kept hoping that at some point there would be some kind of revelation.  Undoubtedly it was meant as a black comedy, though the critics have tripped all over themselves trying to sanitize Lester’s behavior.  Lester, they reason, was so desperate for the experience of freedom that he must be forgiven for making a few unfortunate choices.  Yet, outside of an unlikely misunderstanding, Lester was absolutely free to make his choices without any cost to himself.  How else could he have behaved?  Lester could have given all of his money away or simply blown it and lived on the streets.  He could have met with Angela’s parents and have explained his honest intentions for their daughter (thus risking a bullet from them).  He could have talked out his problems with his wife, and let her take leave to pursue the same freedom that he craved.   Any of this would have made him a more noble character than what comes across in the movie.  Or if he really objected to the moral code that prevents a man over forty from sleeping with an adolescent girl, he could have just slept with her and shown himself for the dirty old man that he was (and then served his time in jail).  The farce we are instead presented with that magically resolves their tryst only provides the illusion that Lester really cared about the well being of this emotionally brittle girl.  If Lester really did care he wouldn’t have messed with her head to begin with (virgin or not), and I’m not sure why director Sam Mendes lacks the comprehension to see this.

Now if this movie was meant solely as ribald lampooning, why do we care if Lester refrains from sleeping with Angela, does not return the kiss to the Colonel, or happens to win all verbal exchanges with Carolyn by insulting her?  For sheer antics, this movie is not even close to being as outrageously entertaining as movies, or even the Cheech and Chong recordings, made twenty-five years before this movie was filmed.  This movie does not stretch the boundaries of conventional morality because Lester always becomes conveniently insecure (not to mention inhibited) right when he’s on the verge of doing something more than today’s Hollywood can accept.  All the talk about this movie’s realism (naïve and imagined that it is) is too horribly in earnest as to allow one to believe that this movie was intended as a pleasurable comedy.  This movie has been sold to us as a drama – or to some as an important cultural statement.  Ultimately what it ends up being is cynicism.  Lester is a financially rich man who feels sorry for his self and believes in nothing but Lester.

Having said all of this, American Beauty still tells us nothing about ourselves.  It shows us bored characters but never explains in depth why their lives are so dysfunctional.  Also, it offers no suggestions to relieve the tedium outside of temporary fixes.  It gives us no reason to care what anyone else thinks or feels.  With the portrayal of a character that lacks moral accountability, it gives us no reason to behave with dignity - or with real joy or hope.  If the awards of freedom mean little more than voyeurism, drug-use and borderline pedophilia, we have set our standards for freedom extremely low.

September 1, 2006
©  Robert S. Miller 2006

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