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Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

Movie

American Beauty
(1999)

 

As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first-world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its punches in favour of affirmation over body blows, boasts a breezy zest in its comfort-food philosophy.

For that’s surely the main explanation for its massive success: that, whatever you think of its choices, it conjures a rare alchemy of accessibility in apparently accessing themes many in its social bracket were feeling but were going unexpressed, with enough wit and faux-poignancy to feel as if it was saying something deep. A deep popcorn movie.

It is, of course, a masquerade of depth, and if not for Alan Ball’s subsequent similar exercises, I might have put this down to the different approaches of writer and director: the writer’s vehement satire blunted by the director’s urge towards the palliative. Certainly, elements in Ball’s script were dropped by Sam Mendes – making his debut, and a journeyman “auteur” if ever there was one – most notably the element of the bookending in which Ricky (Wes Bentley) and Jane (Thora Birch) are convicted of the murder of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey).

Ball was of the view that excising these made the picture more optimistic, with a “really romantic heart”. Which entirely makes sense, as Lester is upbeat about his demise, and the fates of everyone else are left open. It’s notable too that, prior to Mendes involvement, Ball was persuaded – against his own judgement that such an attitude was puritanical – it would be better for Lester and Angela (Mena Suavari) not to have sex, in order that he complete his redemptive journey (and so keep the audience on board with him).

That now seems like a no-brainer, as you’ll find few not taking issue with Lester’s behaviour anyway, as a manipulative opportunist obsessing over an underage girl; he needed every scrap of redemption he could muster. Particularly when he’s played by Spacey. But such is the writing of the piece, and Mendes’ instinct to ally us with Lester, the picture wants us to empathise with him even as he’s being earmarked – by his daughter, by his wife – for his perversity and irresponsibility. Partly, this is encouraged by his having the biggest wish-fulfilment identification factor possible on his side, that of the worm turning.

So the antiquated idea of the diminished husband comes to his aid, something we can now never truly get to grips with because Lester is played by Spacey; even at this point, he was associated most famously with psychos and smooth-tongued hucksters. He’s ladled all the best lines, be it reacting against shrewish wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), who practises the kind of positive thinking that would make Noel Edmonds proud, or taking his firm to the cleaners when he is ousted from his job.

He gets to act like a kid again – working out to get toned, Angela-attracting pecs, smoking weed, listening to rock music, flipping burgers at Mr Smiley – so embracing a life of reaction against the responsibility that has engulfed him. And who wouldn’t want to (react against such responsibility), presented in as unapologetically aspirational and endorsed a fashion as it is here?

Lester’s a gift of a role, and Spacey duly runs with it. It’s a role made for awards, as much as Randall Murphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and if it has a transgressive element, all the better (then, rather than now). The problem is, Ball fails to afford or accord balance elsewhere. Carolyn is perfectly played by Bening, but she entirely does not engender our sympathy, a position Ball continually underlines, whether it’s via Lester repeatedly wondering where the woman he fell in love with went, her worrying about spilling beer instead of enjoying a passionate embrace, or Lester not taking it any more by throwing a plate of food against the wall.

Everyone here is a degree of caricature – it’s closer to Heathers in tone (complete with playful score by Thomas Newman, brother of Heathers composer David) except that it lacks the razor-sharp, take-no-prisoners steeliness – but the dice are always loaded in Lester’s favour.

Is it a problem that American Beauty makes Lester likeable? I’d argue only if you come away with the idea that you aren’t supposed to question whether you should find him likeable. American Beauty’s palatable brand of existential angst is afforded to all its characters, but some more equally than others. It’s a sleight of hand that Lester’s option for release appears more valid than Carolyn’s, because Lester’s is more crowd pleasing – it’s funnier, it allows him to do the things he shouldn’t do, dared not do, to cross and transgress societal norms and (legal) boundaries.

But Ball’s sense of this angst is strictly limited; it can only lead to a reframing of rebellion within an essentially materialist (philosophically, that is) framework. So Lester has the options of getting stoned, living in a hovel, or dropping out. What possible other way is there than emotional regression (as has been noted, this is the grammar of societally reactive stablemates Office Space and Fight Club from the same period, trading in a similar dissatisfaction with affluent western culture. But with a reluctance to embrace the purely nihilistic – albeit Fight Club flirts with it, in a show-offy way – there is a retreat to a place of recontextualising, with the simpler contentment of divesting oneself of unnecessary immediate baggage, usually defined as “stuff”)? Well, Carolyn’s option is sexual reinvigoration with her business revival (Peter Gallagher), which is pretty much the same thing, but in plot terms, she’s positioned as the antagonist.

The other alternative, to give Ball credit, is to embark on a genuine voyage of spiritual self-discovery. Unfortunately, to retract that credit immediately, his exploration of this idea is via Wes Bentley’s offbeat teenage misfit seer Ricky Fitts, who falls between a number of stools, none of them entirely plausible, even in American Beauty’s cartoonishly heightened milieu. On the one hand, there’s a taut reasoning in his method of dealing compliantly with the demands of his militaristic father (Chris Cooper). On the other, he’s portrayed as a can-do overachiever, the sort who’ll end up a Silicon Valley millionaire, building a small empire as a pot dealer and seemingly having an answer to any conundrum (to everything except the one of his dad).

This entrepreneurial nous is somehow supposed to go in tandem with Ricky’s starry (some might say psychotic)-eyed ability to see the beauty of the title in the most unlikely things, from plastic bags to Thora Birch’s Jane (I hasten to stress the latter is in the movie’s terms, as a contrast to Suvari). And further, to – most tellingly – Lester’s serene corpse, brain matter splattered everywhere.

There’s an entirely facile quality to this singular perception, this appreciation of beauty, one that is so literal it invites ridicule (and, with the plastic bag, has duly received it). It’s junk-food philosophy, Little Book of Calm style, designed to give one a brief glimmer of something filling and fulfilling but leaving one wanting again an hour later. And, unless I’m missing something, any sense of the satirical entirely doesn’t extend to Ricky’s perspective (it’s notable too that, while he is afforded considerable time, the other teenage – female – characters are, like Carolyn, almost entirely reactive to the male in their age group. And if not to him, to Lester).

I’d stress that, while I’m entirely less than convinced of the acumen of Ball’s explorations of theme, I revisited American Beauty expecting to find it guilty of grossly inflated value, hoisted far beyond its worth. And while it’s true that I don’t think it deserved Best Picture – how many winners truly do – it’s much more interesting because of its inappropriate ideas and delivery than less so.

I mentioned Heathers above, and I was struck by how much, in dreamy, mood terms, Newman’s score compares to his brother woozy work for that film. So too, there’s a heightened, lush quality to Conrad L Hall’s cinematography – Mendes, as debut feature director, wisely allowed himself to be guided by the veteran’s instincts – that informs the tone of the picture as much as the screenplay and score. Together, they create a sense of a presiding whole.

It’s only when you gaze into the package that, like plastic bag blowing in the wind, it becomes clear how so much of it is at variance with itself. You could argue it’s style over substance, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair; it’s more that the substance itself is frequently glib in its attachments and reach (in that respect, Ball is pre-empting the assumptive air of much prestige TV drama of the next two decades). Ball was simply the latest, less overtly spiritually-inflected but just as audience-friendly incarnation of the Bruce Joel Rubin brand of Hollywood’s fake-out quest for meaning.

Where I really don’t think American Beauty works, and this is only exaggerated on revisit, is the murder plot. True, Lester’s nonchalant Sunset Boulevard-esque from-beyond-the-grave narration announces that it isn’t all about the guilty party, but that only makes Mendes’ focussing on the same the more intrusive. The opening with Ricky and Jane discussing murdering Lester is one such, but so is Jane’s target practice and the attempt to build up the final act (“the day I died”) with intrigue. There’s so much else going on, it feels consequently the more unnecessary. As do the plot mechanisms that lead Cooper’s closeted colonel to kill Lester.

The unlikely conflation of misunderstandings is the stuff of puerile comedy – indeed, the sequence where he thinks Ricky is going down on Lester only needs a laugh track – that might have been, and probably was, found in actual homophobic movie plotlines of the ’70s or ’80s, and is no more resistant to interrogation for being played straight. It compounds this by requiring exclusively unlikely interactions (“Let’s get you out of those wet things”) to push Frank to tipping point. I don’t know, perhaps in Ball’s original envisioning this somehow worked, with a grimly humorous streak, but as directed by Mendes, it’s farce without the laughs. Mendes was right to displace the emphasis from the whodunit element, but he probably needed to go further (although, you can only go so far before unravelling the entire fabric of the picture).

Is American Beauty a good movie? Is it a bad movie? It’s a difficult movie, but I think that’s a good thing. I’d much rather an Oscar winner was problematic and compelling than simply anodyne, and I’d rather rewatch it, for all its flaws, than most of the victors of the subsequent two decades. I think that’s partly because it comes armed with an authorial voice, for better or worse, and so little since has.

This is still the most interesting thing Mendes has done (Revolutionary Road may be more overtly mature and respectable, but it’s less engaging with it), while Ball may have ridden higher with Six Feet Under but lost most of that cred with the subsequent True Blood. Whether, of the other contenders, it was the most deserving, it’s undoubtedly – if you can ignore those “post-9/11” naysayers – the most identifiably of-its-era film in the running that year.

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