Friday, August 1, 2008

American Beauty (1999)

Pretentious. Smug. Overbearing.

American Beauty, the directorial debut of Sam Mendes, is indeed all three of the above. It's a completely self-satisfied picture about some distinctly troubled American suburbanites, and unlike the markedly superior, only superficially similar, Noah Baumbach 2005 comedy-drama, The Squid and the Whale, it wallows in rote cliches and tired tropes. Unlike that film and others about marital discord, parental responsibilities, amilial miscommunication and general suburban angst, American Beauty attempts to play out in some kind of heightened, satirical reality. One can admire the ambition, especially early on, where the film is at least occasionally promising. By the time the screenplay by Alan Ball starts to play so fast and loose with what actions by the characters the audience should and should not condone, however, one can only mark it down as an exercise in disappointment.

Stanley Kubrick probably could have brought this particularly difficult project to a fruitful artistic conclusion. His films were continual, cerebral but immersing bathings in harsh, "heightened" realities, wrought for a satirical point. Critics of Kubrick sometimes criticized what they perceived to be the weak points, the cracks in the foundation. The "Mickey Mouse" singing at the end of Full Metal Jacket by American soldiers in Vietnam is a terrific example of how he could plant his toes right at the edge of the line. Whether you called him out of bounds or not was a judgment call. Many defended Kubrick's more radical impulses because they saw his films as pyramidal constructions whose foundations supported the frequently extreme yet usually innately truthful conclusions. Others found his films too deterministic for any of it to matter, which is probably why they normally (wrongly) thought he was some sort of stone-hearted nihilist. The point is he knew how to always keep it close, and his art, placed as it was at the proverbial breaking point, was naturally an invitation. It was never bitter, as people who misunderstood him often believed it to be, and beneath the disarming laughs provoked by that incandescent satire, was an earnest plea for human betterment. Like any satirist basing his work in irony, Kubrick would point his finger, yes, but never out of a banal sense of entitlement.

The aforementioned The Squid and the Whale dealt with smug characters but it was not a smug film. Its empathy for all characters in its "quirky" drama (to parrot a Sundance phrase) was palpable--restrained, yes, and sometimes obscured by the outre viciousness and greed on display, on multiple levels, that Baumbach studiously analyzed, but it was always there. American Beauty, as written by Ball and directed by Mendes, is a film that seems to enjoy the infantile hopelessness of its characters. It also takes sides. Kevin Spacey, playing a man evidently murdered who narrates the story, like William Holden's Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, is Lester Burnham. He's a milquetoast glob of vanilla who one day decides to essentially bellow, "Screw it," shirks the inhumanities of his job, indulge in smoking marijuana for the first time in ages from the neighborhood pot supplier, and pursue the love of an airheaded but sexy high school cheerleader (Mena Suvari), with whom he becomes infatuated when watching her gyrate at the gymnasium while ignoring his daughter's efforts.

Meanwhile, the wife, Carolyn Burnham (a go-for-broke, swing-for-the-fences Annette Bening), appears to be the primary target of American Beauty's ire, made into a shrill, passive-aggressive, cwaaazy woman who, as you probably knew deep in your bones before literally finding it out, is a real estate broker. Arguably the most thankless role of the film on paper in terms of ambidexterity (and lack thereof), Carolyn is the one character that just about fully surpasses the smothering integument of Ball's screenplay, and aside from what one must intuit to be directorial advice on the part of Mendes, it's Bening's triumph. She allows the character to at least partially hail from the real world--and when she's hurt, which is often, we actually feel it.

Sadly, Mendes and Ball, unlike Billy Wilder with Sunset Boulevard, apparently have little actual interest in the complexities of the woman the permanently adolescent male encounters and emotionally hurts. Carolyn is constructed as a monstrous entity, her entire panoply of emotions and desires reduced to a primal urge to succeed, human obstacles be damned. When she begins to take an interest in guns, we instantly understand the rationale, even if every storytelling signpost indicates with rote bluntness the inevitability of tragedy. Many elements such as these could have been clever screenwriting conceits but they are drained of their lifeblood by Mendes, whose obviousness is made by up by static, stagy and dispassionate shots. The best thing about the direction is that it seems to indicate Mendes could probably be surprisingly effective with a certain kind of comedy, particularly the way he cuts from medium to long shots for a humorous occurrence to be given the underlining of being imperative that usually works in the film's favor. It is too bad Mendes has not pursued this possible gift in his subsequent pictures.

The story of Thora Birch's Jane Burnham and her relationship with The Noble, Artistic and Platitudinous Savant, also known as Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) is vibrating in its preciousness. This is where Ball and Mendes reach--tritely, more than a little embarrassingly--for honorary art-house status and their tunnel-vision in doing so results in a long, erratic, unconvincing and crushingly dull bit of faux-New Age superciliousness. It is probably the through-line that guaranteed approval from the more obsequious among the critical establishment. Yet this wearying bit of equally heavy-handed and under-developed philosophizing only further pushes the film off its rails, making the "look closer" tagline/advice of the poster ring out like a blaring trumpet that could use a much more polished performer behind the instrument.

Yet some haughty critics were probably hoping for even more and American Beauty blithely obliges. A subplot-turned-crucial plot that pivots around the neighborhood ex-Marine played by Chris Cooper (effective though he may be here, he had given better performances before this and would thankfully go on to be given more multifaceted roles to play and play so well) predictably hinges on repressed homosexuality, and the film's determination to make its message trumps the human dilemmas and conundrums. Cooper gives it his all, however, and the much-discussed scene in the garage late in the picture by itself does feel like it could belong in a Kubrick or perhaps '90s Wilder film. Yet in the context of the film at large it's mostly reduced to a supremely bromidic "gotcha!' moment. Many movies play with a full deck. American Beauty owns the deck, the table and decides which players are allowed to take a seat.

For all of the praise, Spacey's performance--which is doubtless engaging--never truly finds what should be an archly-probed depth, but that is the fault of the filmmakers. As a lowly, beaten loser--an ostensibly self-professed failure in his once-doughty, linear struggle for the American dream--he gives a compelling, believable performance, and the best attribute of the entire turn is that when he abandons the much-traveled road, it's less some kind of dramatic shift in character, or epiphanous self-re-creation--which would feel excessively incredible even in this film--than simply another option he quickly finds great pleasure in taking. Unfortunately, American Beauty plays itself out too grandly for this admirable characteristic to correctly mesh in the greater texture of the film. For Ball and Mendes, Spacey's Lester Burnham takes one giant step for once-cowed men all over (that other cinematic love letter to the forgotten man of the late '90s, also from 1999, Mike Judge's Office Space, succeeds where American Beauty falters). Yet, along with Bening, Spacey's own integrity nevertheless remains. His dreamlike gaze at the object of his desires, quizzically enchanting in its own way, metaphorically captures everything about American Beauty: it's lost in its own vision, and for that it deserves respect, but that also creates the accompanying wish that the vision over which it is obsessed amounted to something deeper and more profound than it actually is, no matter how closely we look.


Sam Juliano said...

Disagreeing with Alexander Coleman is not something I want to do often, especially since this is yet again another distinguished piece of film criticism in a number of wayS.
While it's true that Paul Thomas Anderson's MAGNOLIA is the best film of 1999, and that Almodovar's ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, Kiarostami's THE WIND WILL CARRY US, and Alexander Payne's ELECTION do rank ahead of Sam Mendes' in that year's final Ten Best List, (Fincher's FIGHT CLUB has gained in my estimation too since then as challenges AMERICAN BEAUTY for the next spot) I don't agree that the film is pretentious, although the suburban affluence and cynicism that suffuses it's texture does definitely make it come of as smug filmaking. But this is one of Spacey's great creations, and his acting is dead-on. It is a piece of jaded Americana, which defines not only a generation, but the transience of relationships. It is multi-textured and it stays with you, but I have said enough, I don't want to wear out my welcome with a terrific writer-critic, who has made a very eloquent and strong case.
I diasagree, but so what? If someone makes a case this persuasively and with deep insight, what more could one ask for?

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam. You need not worry about wearing out your welcome with me, though. I figured that you would likely feel differently about American Beauty, and that probably a significant number of others would as well.

The interesting thing about the film is that I initially wished to be as kind as I could to it, but as I thought about the film more and more, despite the two lead performances and some other commendable elements such as the cinematography by Conrad Hall, the more I realized I am remarkably cool towards this film. I am naturally disinclined to label films "pretentious" or "smug," but when pondering American Beauty I found those descriptive words inescapable.

I love All About My Mother, The Wind Will Carry Us and Election. Where do you think The Insider, Eyes Wide Shut, The Matrix and Rosetta belong in this discussion?

Sam Juliano said...

Alexander, you are as always fair, erudite and gracious, and you are surely not alone in those sentiments. There has always been a strong minority voice finding serious issues with this film.
As far as the others you bring up, ROSETTA was #6 on my year-end list, and I love all of the Dardenne brothers films, including this wonderfully naturalistic Cannes winner.
THE MATRIX has never seriously rated with me, I'm afraid to say and although I am a huge Kurick fan like yourself, EYES WIDE SHUT has issues, although I like it and it came close to the top-ten list.
THE INSIDER is a good film for sure, but perhaps not quite agreat one, but I understand you're feeling that way.
The other two high ranking films for me that year were the French THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS and the Scandinavian MIFUNE.
I am saddened that you are not a MAGNOLIA fan, as I rate it still as Anderson's greatest work. LOL!

Alexander Coleman said...

I enjoyed Magnolia back when I first saw it but I've found it to be one of those films that doesn't particularly take kindly to re-visitation. I admire it still, and there is a lot to actually like, but I'm afraid it doesn't rate nearly as highly with me as it does for you. Anderson, pre-There Will Be Blood, as an auteur always frustrated me because there were so many excellent, meritorious aspects to his films but they never quite stood on their own for me, despite his unquestionable passion.

Rosetta may be my favorite film of 1999, but then again All About My Mother or perhaps The Wind Will Carry Us or Election or The Insider may be as well. 1999 was a glorious year. The Dreamlife of Angels and Mifune were likewise tremendous. I also greatly enjoyed both Cookie's Fortune and The End of the Affair. And then there's Being John Malkovich, which is admittedly, I think, not as great as what Kaufman would come up with later but nevertheless still a fine film.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes indeed, I did like COOKIE'S FORTUNE and THE END OF THE AFFAIR was ravishing, with that great score to boot, but revisitation of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH gives me the same feeling you have with MAGNOLIA. A glorious year for sure. The other Top 10 film for me was the Japanese AFTERLIFE, and I had fair enough respect for RUN LOLA RUN. As far as THE RED VIOLIN, I know it is flawed, but I still love it deeply, perhaps because of my love for this kind of music. John Corigliano's score was one of the greatest in contempoarary cinema.
Shyamalen fans will rightfully point to THE SIXTH SENSE as his best film, but it still doesn't come close to making my top ten, even with it's attributes.

Alexander Coleman said...

Being John Malkovich isn't flawless, and I greatly prefer both Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to it, but I do still think of it as one of 1999's better offerings.

I've always had Run Lola Run and The Red Violin marked as 1998 films.

Anyone who wishes to, you're welcome to steer this back to American Beauty. :)

K. Bowen said...

I. Hate. This. Movie.

Alexander Coleman said...

KB, it's a film that, when thought about, seems to create more and more anger, isn't it? My opinion--which was never kind beyond acknowledging Spacey and Bening--of it drops greatly with each passing year. In a few years I'll probably be writing another review saying Maximum Overdrive is a deeper movie. In fact, I might already think that.

Love the succinct statement, KB.

Sam Juliano said...

Again, that anger seems to be mostly restricted to the buyer's remorse of blogger critics and the hindsight of Oscar watchers, who always are hankering to contest the legitimacy of past Best Picture winners. The same thing happened to the lovely DRIVING MISS DAISY, which was beloved by most of the professional critics and arthouse audiences.
AMERICAN BEAUTY currently holds down a super-impressive 86 on MC (universal acclaim) and won raves from Janet Maslin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kenneth Turan, Roger Ebert and numerous others.
It is true that Pauline Kael did not give the film a favorable review, so there are some that seem to support the specifics of your issues, but they are in the vast minority.
My own feeling for the film has solidified, rather than angered me, buy hey that's why we have discourse and varying views.
I fully respect yours.

Craig Kennedy said...

With the caveat that I haven't seen it in years and years, I'll have to cop to loving American Beauty when I first saw it.

No idea if it has held up or hasn't, though I understand the prevailing opinion has moved away from it.

I have to say though this was a pretty spectacular and convincing dismantling of the film and a very enjoyable read.

One of these days I'll sit down and watch the movie again so I can have something more interesting to say about it.

Sam Juliano said...

Craig, I think what got lost in our crossfire is that this was one o fthe most persuasive piece of negative critiscism I've ever read. Whether you agree with Alexande ror not, this is really terrific!!! And that is the bottom line.

Alexander Coleman said...

I was certain that others would have very different opinions on the film.

But thank you very much, guys. It's one thing to like something with which you agree--another to if you find yourself in disagreemnt. I'm honored that my review has fallen in the latter category with some. It's all about the exchange of ideas, the root of what we usually call "opinions."

Craig Kennedy said...

If I see it and love it, I'll come back and tell you you're full of it :)

Alexander Coleman said...

I'm prepared, Craig. :)

K. Bowen said...

What I always thought about this movie is that it was written at the level of smug 16-year-old who thinks he understands the adult world but really has no clue whatsoever.

Bening is good, because she basically has to turn a poorly-written human dart board into something halfway interesting. I've always admired her for her performance in this. But that doesn't mean that the two-dimensionality of her character went unnoticed.

Alexander Coleman said...

KB, I believe you have encapsulated my own thoughts of American Beauty rather excellently. I find it to be, ultimately, a sophistic movie. And as you say, despite Bening's best efforts--and they are duly noted as admirable--her character is woefully misjudged in the extreme. Taking such an awfully-written, one-dimensional part and turning it into something significantly stronger must have been quite taxing; a case of a performer acting her pants off in order to make something meager at least come off adequately. As often is the case, AMPAS awarded the wrong people for this movie (along with the wrong movie).