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.