Ty Burr exults that there's a place for films both arty and pulpy

By Ty Burr
Updated September 29, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Double Jeopardy” and ”American Beauty” hit big at the box office

If you look at this past weekend’s box office returns closely, you’ll note two things. One: ”Double Jeopardy” made a nice little splash, with a $23.7 million opening in over 2,500 screens (that’s a per-screen average of $9,305, for you stat heads). Two: ”American Beauty” made $6 million in a mere 429 theaters — which makes for a whopping $14,070 per screen. Both films, then, can be counted as commercial successes (more about their artistic success in a second).

And that makes me happy, because if an entertainingly overripe piece of cinematic headcheese and a funky, disturbing slice of suburban anomie can both find mass audiences, well, this is a wonderful country we live in.

That’s right — ”Double Jeopardy” is headcheese: absurdly unbelievable, conceptually flawed, 900 pounds of flaming hooey. But so was ”Wild Things,” and I enjoyed the hell out of that too. This is the kind of movie, in fact, that Hollywood used to excel at making in the golden age of melodrama: the sort of shamelessly simpleminded hokum that could have starred Barbara Stanwyck or Susan Hayward in an earlier era. Wronged Mom Behind Bars Goes Gunning for the Husband Who Framed Her — it even sounds like a tabloid headline from the 1950s. And Ashley Judd, God bless her, knows the turf and doesn’t stray from it, looking like a no-muss-no-fuss cover girl even when she’s doing time as a prison slavey. So what if Tommy Lee Jones offers up a Xerox of his ”Fugitive” role? Do you remember any of the guys who starred opposite Joan Crawford? Of course not — this is an opulent, engaging women’s revenge fantasy, the kind of cheap novel with an embossed cover that you’d buy in an airport and hide in your carry-on bag until the plane took off.

”American Beauty” is another matter entirely: It’s the latest in the mini-genre we may as well call Sterile Suburbia. This one has roots that go back to the post-WWII era, but it really got a goose with ”The Graduate” and has shown up more recently in films from ”Ordinary People” to ”The Ice Storm.” You know the drill: The (upper) middle class is a bastion of repression, hypocrisy, sexual dysfunction, and excellent dinnerware, so get out while you can. What does ”American Beauty” add to this screed? Gorgeous visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Conrad Hall), a richly ironic performance by Kevin Spacey as an ”ordinary man with nothing to lose,” and — best of all — reasonably clearheaded takes on adolescence, the marriage rut, and low-level drug use.

After the post-”Porky’s” horny boys of ”American Pie,” the warmed-over Sandra Dee-isms of ”She’s All That,” and the smartass targets that populate the ”Scream” clones, it’s just plain nice to see believably spiteful/hopeful adolescents like Thora Birch’s Jane and Mena Suvari’s Angela (Wes Bentley is too preternaturally self-aware to be for real, but that’s intended, I think). ”American Beauty” is a tad too proud of itself to be the classic its makers think it is, but it still pokes more deeply into uncomfortable areas of its audiences’ lives than any studio film has in light-years. And for that it has been rewarded, not only by rave reviews (well, of course — we critics love that old dark side) but by full theaters. That both ”Beauty”’s rancid vision and ”Jeopardy”’s full-on pulp can prosper suggests that we know our steak au poivre from our Twinkies — and appreciate them both.

American Beauty

  • Movie
  • R
  • 121 minutes
  • Sam Mendes