American Beauty

Directed by Kevin Smith
Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch

My Rating:

Dysfunctional families were never so fun!

Bitable Bytes:
"Delivers a Back-Handed Noogie!"
"Dark Humor!"
"Camera Artiness Distracts from the Obvious Yecch Factor!"

What to eat while watching:

What to do while watching:
Shift uncomfortably.

Many good movies demand to be grappled with. Of course, so does a movie like Plan 9 from Outer Space. You have to grapple with the juxtaposition of its almost legendary status with the fact that it's nearly unwatchable. You have to grapple with the urge to shut it off. American Beauty is also a grappler, as movies go, though winning or losing doesn't seem to matter much.

I really like the weirdness of this movie. In fact, the weirdness is really all there is to like, so it's a good thing I like it. Kevin Spacey plays a typically off-beat role as a soul-dead dad, one Lester Burhnam, just a small dysfunctional cog in a small suburban family. His wife Annette Bening, similarly lacks a soul beneath her pancake makeup. Their daughter, the winning Thora Birch, is the one ray of hope in the family, though she's currently behind a dark, adolescent, goth cloud. The movie kindly spells the scenario out for us with every standard suburban stereotype in the book of dark humor, such as:

- Dad's dead-end advertising job includes the smarmy, newly hired middle manager.
- Mom's new-age façade of positivism does not help her struggling real estate business or her glacially cold marriage.
- Everyone in the neighborhood cares what everyone else thinks, so all is dressed in the raiment of normalcy.
- An ocean of malaise, insanity and violence roils thickly just beneath the ticky-tacky surface of life in the neighborhood.

In this setting, it's easy to accept that dad and mom are no longer in love. She's obsessed with growing roses, selling real estate, and appearing normal. She has no time for love. She and hubby can relate on no other level than sarcasm, which gives the script plenty of opportunities to harp on the hypocrisy of their lifestyle. Where's Mr. Rodgers? I could use an ounce of sincerity about now.

Daughter Jamie departs from stereotype, however. In fact, she embodies two totally divergent stereotypes at once: she's the pale-skinned, pouty, sarcastic vampire girl; and she's also a cheerleader and best friends with the most popular girl in school. The screenwriter credits his audience with the ability to go with the flow, so it's up to the viewer to accept that the outcast goth chick (think Ali Sheedy in Breakfast Club) is only a heartbeat away from the most popular girl in school (think Molly Ringwald in Breakfast Club). No wonder her parents can't relate to her!

The stalemate of the Burnham family's life shifts when Lester meets Jamie's popular, blonde friend. He gets a second-adolescence erection for her and plots to seduce her in spite of, well, just about every ethical and legal reason you can think of. If you have thick skin when it comes to creepiness, you may enjoy the camera tricks that illustrate Lester's fantasies. If you are creeped out, however, you can let the camera tricks and artiness distract you from the obvious yecch factor.
Next door to Thora lives a strange boy who manages to woo her in spite of his own creepy video-camera-based come-on. We find out that this dude (Wes Bentley) is the son of an insane and abusive marine. As does Birch's character, Bentley's embodies opposing personality traits. He's the psycho's son who has partaken of psychosis and psychotropic drugs, plus the social outcast, the cool rebel, and the transcendent Whitmanian lad who we'd all like to emulate. (Think Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall and Emilio Estevez from Breakfast Club, and throw in Matthew Broderick and his Hypocondiac Friend from Ferris Beuller's Day Off.) Never has a character had to work hard to embody all that the script needs him to embody. By maintaining a Zen kind of cool, young Ricky rises above it all and moves the plot forward. A pleasant surprise occurs when Jamie falls for Ricky and shows him--and us--her young knockers.

But shut my mouth wide open--now I'm just as creepy as Lester B.! Maybe this very implication is what makes so many people consider this a great film. But it lowers everyone's morality to rake up lecherous thoughts and follow this with a slap on the wrists. Truth to tell, I was as confused by the morality of this movie as it seems itself to be confused.

For example, in dad's penultimate scene, he has an epiphany, realizing that family is the main joy of life. HUH? This is not depicted in the film itself, only in flashbacks that never took place in the movie. Furthermore, though dad's final moments are infused with an unprecedented peaceful transcendence, he doesn't have the chance to share it with anyone, which is an interesting irony, as the rest of his beloved family is left to carry on in their muddied, shallow and doomed existences. What is the point of his deep, soulful joy if he has brought no joy to anyone else in the film? As Q-Tip would say, "Nada, nada, nada. Not a damn thing."

And though Lester repents his lechery at the last minute, the film cannot backpedal from its mud-bath of creepiness mixed with allure. So what is the moral of the story? And how can a moral try to diverge so completely from the plot that carries it? Call it "postmodern," "groovy," or "headache-inducing," American Beauty delivers a back-handed noogie that's sure to do something to everyone.

And is it just me or are others reminded repeatedly of Fight Club? Lester blackmails his boss for a retirement-enabling severance package. Lester delivers almost monotone voices-over in which he discusses future events. Lester retreats frequently into a fantasy world and gets buff. It's good they didn't cast Ed Norton in the role, or I'd have been really confused.

When then film ends, my life continues. I straighten the living room, feed the cat. Though the movie was disturbing in parts, the makers were courteous enough not to burden it with a unified heavy message or upsetting issues. At the end of the tape, it's over.

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For your collection: American Beauty (DVD), American Beauty (VHS)

Gooden's listening to: Rube Waddell's Hobo Train.Good stuff, boyee!

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