American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)
American Beauty is the sort of film that cast the world in a spell of universal adolescence; it’s from many angles a creation that could have come exclusively from America in the late ’90s — the agony, you might say, of prosperity. Its clichés, to be honest, are easy to categorize and dismiss and compare harshly with other films. What new is there to say about suburban angst that by the time of Sam Mendes’ highly visible Best Picture winner had not already been laid out, defined, analyzed by far more successfully emotional and witty smaller films, in particular Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm? There isn’t much, and what’s here doesn’t really carry the dark, shaky comic core of Solondz or the immensely real pain of Lee. Compared to either, American Beauty is a bit of an insular lampoon, an outsider’s cluck-clucking at the moral failures of the Highly Typical American family. This was the source of a lot of criticism of it, understandably; Greil Marcus and Robert Altman were among those to speak with unbridled disdain of its dramatic failings and condescension. Though the work of a first-time director, it retains, they’d argue, a Hollywood smugness (the project was greenlit by Steven Spielberg) exploiting the supposed histrionics behind closed suburban doors. You see, Regular Folk are just as weird as we Hollywood freaks are! Etc.
But just as when I first saw the film at crucial age 16, at a time when Monica Lewinsky was a household name and Osama bin Laden wasn’t, I find an awful lot of what goes on in American Beauty more honest than is generally reputed. The wrongheaded urgency and inevitably of teenage romance, all there and true and sad and pretty; the push-pull love-hate of a family whose edges are fraying; the sex-crazed march into middle age in an uncomfortable household; and quiet, still suburban evenings watching television and saying as little as possible to one another — that, in many ways, was my adolescence. I grew up in a family not unlike the one depicted here, even a little eerily similar to the sociopathic one next door with Nazi plates and militaristic homophobia, and though Alan Ball’s script is very much a glorified sitcom, it gets more right than wrong — and is less condescending than, oh, almost any Coen Brothers movie I can think of. The Ice Storm is still more empathetic and honest; The Ice Storm absolutely is my family. American Beauty is the sardonic TV version of my family.
None of that is to say that I don’t empathize with the view that the film’s characters are unfairly marginalized figures representing meaninglessly broad swaths of American life; no shit, really, with Ball seemingly more interested in writing an HBO pilot than a movie screenplay. (Not surprisingly, he created a television series shortly after this.) Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham is cuddly for an aging malcontent, Annette Bening’s bitter real estate agent Carolyn who runs her own home like a museum lacks a real sense of inner life (something of a misogynistic stereotype), but both are given complexity by the respective performances. (Bening does hit a few off-notes, but that’s primarily due to her pairing with the deliberately over-the-top Peter Gallagher, and the comic one-dimensionality of many of her scenes; that said, the drive-thru sequence is genuinely hilarious.) Even Chris Cooper, saddled with a stereotype, finds a warmth and fear in its cold heart. It’s difficult to separate the film itself from what it actively promotes, which is a tricky maneuver when it lacks the gentle skepticism of Solondz’s work; it guides us a little too much without really wanting us to go all the way. For instance, a couple of Wes Bentley’s speeches are outrageously dumb (“you’re boring!” he snarls to a not-particularly-boring, just sunny and unworldly, Mena Suvari) and hypocritical — is a guy who says this stuff really any more shallow than Suvari’s character? — and so is his much-mocked grocery bag scene, but at the same time, his big-hearted teenage melodrama is the entire point of his existence here, illustrated by the fact that when I first saw this I felt he was speaking for me, maaaaan. The film gets completely right the black-and-white and massive all over emotions of being a clever, troubled kid his age and his lopsided relationship with the outer world. Anyone of a certain high school subset is bound to recognize themselves here or in Thora Birch’s achingly sensitive portrayal of the Burnhams’ daughter Jane, a half-formed ball of confusion, half freak and half geek and more believable than either, certainly more believable than Ball’s perception of her parents.
Perhaps that’s why American Beauty so often rings true for kids of the age Birch and Bentley depict here — like My So-Called Life and Daria, it correctly captures how the world looks to a teenager: imposing, surreal, and unfeeling, with every adult a burned-out oaf. What’s depressing is that there’s some truth in their interpretation. But even these two cannot be spared from the condescension of Ball and director Sam Mendes, even with the scripted ending of their wrongful conviction for Lester’s murder long since scrapped. Indeed, we are meant to find much to mock in their limited worldview, which is what separates this from so many of its brethren — it’s a tirelessly cynical film, which is not necessarily a bad thing in my eyes. Its cynicism at least is honest, and deceives no one, and its final hopeless turnaround — a last-minute switch in Lester from lustful monster to redemptive family man — is rather deliciously circumvented in the heat of a sort of cheery pessimism reminiscent of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (the script explicitly references Sunset Blvd. and also equals its acidic worldview).
Mendes’ visual sense — his colorful breakdown of suburbia — owes much to Edward Scissorhands, as much as the script owes to Wilder at his blackest, and has nothing to do with reality, but it’s impressively well thought-out and complete for a first-time feature filmmaker. Mendes is also highly character conscious; watch how calmly and carefully he places Spacey and Bening in the frame for shot after shot. And yet, despite his claims to the contrary, I don’t think he and Ball show much affection for their characters beyond their various plot functions, but that doesn’t bother me so much because even with the sneering final gunshot, the thesis of the film (not dissimilar to Eyes Wide Shut, actually) seems to hinge on acceptance and empathy more than anything. And the contrast of the wide-eyed hope in Bentley, Birch and Suvari with the weathered up-and-down of Spacey and Bening may not resemble the real nature of adulthood as much as adolescence, but it does correctly dissect the way that the size of our fuckups and the depth of our feelings is the same no matter how old we are.
You know what holds this thing together? You know, explicitly, what sells this vision of the American suburbs and the emotional seriousness of the story underneath all the sniping back and forth? That would be Thomas Newman’s brilliant, evocative, almost supernaturally perfect score — very likely his best, and one of the strangest and most innovative of its period. Every moment of its curiously atonal delicacy seems to bring the ballistic larger-than-life fierceness of the screen action back to a certain form of reality, back to the heady and existential dramatics of someone like Bergman (who loved the film). You may read something else entirely in the film than I do, and that fits because it’s a genuine work of art and, even if overpraised upon release, deserves the thought and the analysis. But I’d wager that Newman is the primary reason that we don’t all see the same thing — a loudmouthed and boorish, slightly thematically heavy tragicomedy that’s more than a little unpleasant — when we look at it. He gives it gravity, his conscious sense of the heart of the tale such a contrast to the invisible dumbness shoving that bag around, and he makes all the difference.