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Examining 'American Beauty' at 15: A masterpiece, or a farce?

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American Beauty Bag

Fifteen years ago this week, Sam Mendes’ film American Beauty arrived in U.S. theaters. In Florida, a film critic named Jay Boyar reviewed Mendes’ first full-length feature for the Orlando Sentinel—and he wrote that after seeing it, he “decided that the little satirical film would come and go without much fuss.”

However: “In the weeks since I saw the film, it has opened in a few places to ridiculously generous reviews,” Boyar mused. “Entertainment Weekly called it ‘bracing in its intensity’ and the New York Times praised its ‘eloquent flights of fancy.’ I’m sorry to say that even the usually reliable David Denby of The New Yorker seems to have popped his cork, proclaiming it ‘by far the strongest American film of the year.’

“So now I’m thinking,” Boyar concluded, “that American Beauty might be remembered for something else: The movie that caused a lot of movie critics to lose what was left of their minds.” (Sure enough, as Mariana McConnell wrote in CinemaBlend in 2008, “Though bestowed with the coveted Best Picture statuette, Sam Mendes’ 1999 debut is not the withering analysis of curdled society in suburban wasteland that the film was lauded as being. … Rather, American Beauty is an insipid spook story about a second adolescence, dressed up with ham-handed, unoriginal critiques.”)

Fifteen years and five Oscars—including Best Picture—later, American Beauty remains divisive. In February, the staff of The Playlist wrote that it was now hard to remember what “we all collectively lost our sh– over.” In March, it cropped up at No. 3 on a list of 10 “Awesome Movies It Suddenly Became Cool to Hate.” Earlier this summer, The Hollywood Reporter’s list of TV and film VIPs’ favorite films put American Beauty in the No. 34 slot—causing Richard Rushfield of Yahoo! to tweet, “What will it take to slay this vampire?”

So, does American Beauty live up to even some of the hype that surrounded it in 1999— or has hindsight made it clear that the acclaim came from a bout of collective insanity? Two Entertainment Weekly staffers who recently re-watched American Beauty—online news editor Ashley Fetters and staff writer Esther Zuckerman—discuss.

Esther: Ashley, I want to know: When you finished watching this movie again, were you overwhelmed by all the beauty in the world?

Ashley: Oh, boy. Well—overwhelmed? No. I cried no big, glossy Wes Bentley tears this time around. But I have to say: I still like American Beauty. I still think it’s an excellent film.

Yes, I did roll my eyes a few more times than I probably did the first time. Some of the performances struck me as shriller than they did on first viewing, the music is about 80 times more sugary-sentimental than I remembered, and the film doesn’t explore homosexuality and homoeroticism as boldly, or as compassionately, as it probably would be if it had been made today. (And it wasn’t, which isn’t the movie’s fault.)

But there are parts of American Beauty that, when I saw them the first time, were hair-raising and goosebump-inducing and unlike anything I’d ever seen before—and they remain unlike anything I’ve seen since. Lester Burnham spotting his teenage daughter’s friend Angela for the first time from the bleachers of a high-school gym; Lester ever-so-coolly hurling a plate of asparagus at a wall; Lester quitting his job and gleefully blackmailing his boss; Lester almost-seducing Carolyn in the middle of the day on their couch. (I guess you could say there’s a theme here: Most of what still wows me about American Beauty is Kevin Spacey’s performance as Lester.)

What were your impressions, though, of a now-15-year-old American Beauty? What worked for you this time around, and what didn’t?

Esther: Well, to preface this, I was sort of aware of the American Beauty backlash the first time I saw the movie. So after watching it again recently, I thought it was a technically fine movie, and easy—perhaps even enjoyable, though that may be the wrong term—to watch. Kevin Spacey is good. Chris Cooper probably gives the best performance in the movie.

But I guess that’s all pretty faint praise. Mostly, I found myself looking for ways to excuse the movie’s pretentiousness.

For example: Let’s start with the one of the most easily maligned parts of the movie: the speech Ricky gives when he asks Jane if she wants to see the “most beautiful” thing he’s ever filmed.

The movie flashes back to that plastic bag video near its conclusion, in which Lester reflects on all the beautiful things in his life from beyond the grave. The cut implies that Mendes and [screenwriter Alan] Ball want the plastic bag speech to be the central tenet of their movie. Which, quite frankly, is ridiculous; it’s just a darn plastic bag, after all. And Ricky is—or should be considered—unreliable as a character. By this point, we know he smokes a ton of weed. So ultimately, these deep thoughts about beauty are just the musings of a weirdo stoner kid. (The fact that Jane falls for them is another story entirely. But, you know, teenagers.)

So is American Beauty an example of stoner wisdom? Or does it buy into its own stoner wisdom a little too much?

Ashley: Actually, that’s a great question. As profound as I thought this movie was the first time I saw it, this time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how similar it is to Office Space, which absolutely has a whiff of “stoner wisdom” to it. Interchangeable office drone undergoes some sort of epiphany, quits obeying the oppressive forces in his life, and finds joy again—well, briefly, before a peripheral character burns it all down. It’s similar to Fight Club, too, in that it deals with a restless, office-enslaved white guy rebelling and consequently feeling alive.

The other two movies, of course, fit much more neatly into the category of “stoner classics”—but American Beauty seems to be the most overtly pro-stoner of the three, doesn’t it? Its most sympathetic characters include two hotboxing high-schoolers, a pot-smoking suburban dad, and the teenage weed tycoon next door. Plus, some of the only truly joyful moments of the film are in scenes in which these characters get high together.

Esther: One thing that stood out much more prominently on the rewatch was the movie’s dark comedy. Some of it may be unintentional: The dialogue, for example, is often weirdly stilted. Ball’s teenagers aren’t as hyperverbal as those on Dawson’s Creek, but they also don’t sound like normal teenagers. They speak the way adults think infantile teenagers speak. (Think of Angela’s taunts: “You total slut, you have a crush on him. You’re defending him, you love him, you wanna have, like, 10,000 of his babies.”)

But besides that, many of the performances are just too over-the-top, save for Allison Janney in one of the most muted roles of her career. Kevin Spacey doesn’t get off clean in my book—but the main offender is Annette Bening, whose character is an amalgam of tired female stereotypes: She’s a stuck-up bitch and a careerist who doesn’t care about her family. Bening, however, seems like she’s having a great time ranting and raving in the movie’s most overtly comedic performance.

Still, I wondered at times whether she was the standard everyone else should be measured against. Maybe the movie works better if we’re just supposed to laugh at it all: Look at these people, with their ridiculous lives and their desire to find meaning in stupid things like plastic bags!

Ashley: You mentioned the ending, and it’s worth noting that the second time around, the movie’s conclusion was a different and much less satisfying experience for me.

Of course, it was divisive even at the time. In its review, The New York Times said that American Beauty “manages to end on a note of acceptance, even in the wake of its forced yet brilliantly staged, devastating climax,” while Roger Ebert seemed to be picking up the same dark-comedy vibe you mentioned when he called the ending “a series of misunderstandings so bizarre they belong in a screwball comedy.”

I agree with you (and with Ebert) about American Beauty being strongest in its bitter, satirical moments—which is why I find Lester watching his life flash before his eyes so jarring. It’s a surprisingly, discordantly saccharine ending for such a fantastically weird story: The dreamy monologue about the grandmother’s hands, fireworks, the cousin’s Firebird, “Janie… and Janie”—aren’t these the kinds of things you’d think the most cliché human in the world would reflect on as he’s dying? And isn’t the point of American Beauty that when you look closer, the most boring, mundane things in the world aren’t boring or mundane at all?

Some of American Beauty’s most vibrant and memorable moments are made so by bizarrely, profanely carnal imagery—the rose petal in the mouth, the throwaway line about how Carolyn used to fake seizures in college when she got bored at parties, and the line I still can’t un-hear from Janie about how she worries her dad will “spray his shorts” every time she brings a girlfriend home from school.

I remembered those things vividly between the first time I saw American Beauty and the next time I saw it years later. I wouldn’t have been able to name any of the images Lester saw in his end-of-life flashback, though, besides maybe the two visions of Jane. So for these last images of the film to be so bland and sterile is just sort of a bummer.

But, conversely, maybe that’s the point. Maybe it is a sly gesture at a darker message—that Lester is a generic, average human after all, and this is what a generic, average human looks like up close. Maybe the film is zooming back out to the bigger picture at the end of his life, and these images are Mendes’ way of saying, This very screwed-up story has, in fact, been the story of a normal man.

Esther: Lester is a normal man, as you say, but he’s also despicable. Maybe not more so than anyone else in this movie, but he’s ostensibly our hero, and I find little that’s redeeming about him. He spends most of the film fetishizing a teenage girl, and only stops doing so when he realizes she’s a virgin. And even though they don’t actually have sex, Lester gets what he wants: a pretty young thing telling him that, yeah, she would do him. Angela’s revelation makes him want to take care of her, as a father might, which leads to him inquiring about Jane—but the predatory nature of their interactions never goes away.

American Beauty came out the same year The Sopranos premiered on HBO, ushering in the age of antihero television. The driving concept behind shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad—that grand trifecta—is similar to American Beauty’s notion that not everything is at it seems: The guy next door could be a mobster, or a philanderer, or a meth cook. Lester could have been Walter White if he knew anything about chemistry. Therefore, we can’t falsely glorify him—as so many did in the case of Walt. We’re just supposed to pity him. But what is there to pity?

Ashley: I’m thrilled that you brought up antiheroes. While the so-called Golden Age of TV certainly didn’t invent the “morally complicated hero” or the bad-guy-as-protagonist (just look at American Beauty’s handful of Lolita references), it did teach wider audiences what to expect from—and how to talk about—antihero stories.

Today, it seems like common knowledge that protagonists like these—bad men who do whatever they want, or good men who break bad and proceed to do whatever they want—will at least confront the possibility of death in the end. It happened to Walt, Nick Brody, Tony Soprano, Dexter; some predict Frank Underwood and Don Draper will as well.

But 15 years ago, perhaps that wasn’t the case. Clearly, even now, writers of antihero stories still struggle to find a satisfying for their bad but perversely lovable protagonists—something that lets the character find redemption while coming to terms with the consequences of his or her actions. The ending of American Beauty, then, plays today like a crude early attempt at this, especially in comparison with the elegant close of, say, Breaking Bad. But you can see how they share a common goal.

Esther: To talk about Lester’s death, of course, we also have to talk about his murderer, Colonel Fitts—the outwardly homophobic, inwardly gay next door neighbor. Colonel Fitts spends much of the movie as an outright villain; his inner turmoil is supposed to humanize him. He’s “tortured,” just like Lester—just like everyone else in the movie. The movie’s gay themes feel like they’re meant to be transgressive, but in 2014, they just seem hackneyed. The filmmakers mine shock value from both Fitts’ virulent homophobia and the kiss he gives Lester. Both end up like cheap plot devices.

In any case, I think it’s fair to say that American Beauty probably isn’t a masterpiece. And it’s very easy to say that it takes itself too seriously. (Case in point: Ball recently told the Huffington Post, “There is spirituality to it. I don’t want to define that spirituality as any particular school of thought, but I think it is about a man who goes on a spiritual journey and reclaims his life. Now, he does some pretty stupid and childish things, but in a way it’s kind of heroic.”) It’s fatally flawed, just like its characters—but maybe it’s also been scorned a little too much.

Ashley: I think it’s fair to say American Beauty is a classic, if not a masterpiece—if you put it in the right parameters. Call it, say, an earnest, honest-to-goodness “spiritual journey,” and it falls miserably short. Call it anything else, however—a Kevin Spacey tour de force; a caustic take on life in every generic American suburb, with, yes, some missteps into sentimental-uplifty territory; a mesmerizingly effed-up story of a man who follows his heart even as it runs him directly into the ground—and I would say, even 15 years on, it still fits the bill.

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