It's okay, I wouldn't remember me either.
Why it's a left-wing film
Sam Mendes' "American Beauty
" opens high above a beautiful American suburb as though the idea is to watch the first-time director pick from at random any perfect-looking American family living in any perfect-looking American home located on any perfect-looking American street in order to make the case that the price of buying into the stifling, conformist American Dream is dysfunction, desperation, and depression.
Furthermore, the only sin in this story is hypocrisy and we know this because it's only hypocrites who suffer and who are unhappy; those fools who bought into the lie that hard work, sexual restraint, military duty, love of country, status, money, and manicured lawns mean something. On the other hand, it's those who openly flaunt the norms of society who have been granted the reward of inner peace. This includes Jim and Jim, the openly gay couple who live down the block and Ricky Fitts, the dope-smoking, drug dealing, emo vegetarian able to see through all the suburban phoniness and experience the real beauty available to anyone with the courage to remove the blinders; the elegance of a plastic bag blowing in the wind or the smile of contentment on the face of a man who's just had his brains blown out.
Because the American Dream is -- like the Matrix -- the enemy and antagonist of our story, a hero is required to show the rest of us the way out, a Neo who will bravely struggle against all the Agent Smiths dispatched from the Matrix (moral standards, corporate America, status-driven wives, and ultimately guns owned by the insecure) to break free from its insidious hold. Enter Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a husband, father and cubicle drone who lives in nothing less than a red, white and blue McMansion and, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, has no idea when he finally surrendered to The Depression or became the kind of man whose day is all downhill after his morning masturbatory session.
But something's happening to Lester, something dangerous to the Matrix
Lester is becoming self aware.
His masturbation is more than just an act of sexual release, it's also a form of secret rebellion against the hollow promise of all the American beauty he's accumulated over the years, the "stuff" that's sedated his ability to feel joy.
"American Beauty" is a fascinating and revealing exploration through the empty, dark soul of the left, those who confuse the pursuit of pleasure with happiness and the releasing of your inner-narcissist with fulfillment. Though they remain the most conformist, lock-steppers of all, because Leftists are so unhappy and too arrogant to wake up to the fact that they're the source of their own unhappiness, the left refuses to believe that those of us who disagree with them, those of us who try to live our lives morally and embrace the American dream, aren't suffering from that hoary cliché known as "quiet desperation."
Without the patronizing mantra of "quiet desperation," what does the left have? Nothing. Only the realization that their own conformity and inability to feel and express joy is their own fault and not someone else's. Specifically not the fault of an American way of life that for two hundred years has disproved and laughed in the face of the left's arrogant belief in their own superiority.
Oh, and we're all gay.
Why it's a great film
Like John Wayne's "The High and the Mighty" -- the granddaddy of airline disaster films -- thanks to countless copycats and spoofs, what wasn't clichéd at the time of "American Beauty's" release is now, and sometimes hilariously so. Though not the first unfair attempt to deconstruct suburban American life into something as dysfunctional and depraved as the Hollywood Hills really are, "American Beauty" did re-energize the genre, which in turn makes the best picture Oscar winner look less dynamic and even more pretentious than the first time we saw it.
Nothing, however, will ever diminish Spacey's knock-out performance as a man struggling out from under a pile of unfulfilled dreams, a loveless marriage and a thankless job, as he embarks upon one audacious and audaciously entertaining midlife crisis. The vicarious thrill of watching Lester blackmail his employer, rebel against his brittle realtor wife Carolyn (an amazing Annette Bening), and attempt to relive the best years of his life as a pot-smoking teenager with a red Camaro and a no-stress job flipping burgers is unforgettable thanks to the perfect actor being chosen to bring to life a superbly written character. In the mouth of one Kevin Spacey (who won a no-brainer Oscar), Lester's Burnham's particular brand of passive-aggressive sarcasm becomes a form of sublime poetry where in scene after memorable scene he serves up enough quotable dialogue for ten films.
Unlike Ricky Fitts, Lester is also a deceptively moral character, a fact that I think gets lost in all the cultural criticism the film receives. Yes, Lester's sexual obsession with his daughter's underage cheerleader friend Angela (Mena Suvari) is central to the overall plot and played for both comedy and as part of the vicarious thrill. And yes, that's sleazy. But don't forget that when Lester's about to get what he wants, he chooses not to go through with it. When his conquest is complete and Angela is naked, willing, and ripe for the taking, Lester comes to his senses after she confesses that this will be her first time. Her words snap him out of the fantasy and allow him to see her for the young, insecure, and vulnerable girl she really is. Immediately, he covers her up and even makes her a sandwich. He assumes the proper role as the grown up who, despite his own desires, protects her from herself.
It's also at this moment when Lester finally figures out that the final piece to the puzzle of his happiness can only be found in his wife and daughter. Unfortunately (for him, us, and the movie), Lester's murdered by the homophobic, misogynistic, United States Marine who's really a repressed homosexual before he can make things right. Personally, I would've loved to have seen an uplifting third act where Lester fixes his family, but the film's agenda wouldn't allow for that. However, the fact that Lester does redeem himself is a moment of real grace that thankfully allows us to remain sympathetic to a truly wonderful character.
Though (as I mentioned above) pretentious in places, Alan Ball's Oscar- winning script is strikingly elegant and beautiful in spots and while I don't agree with what it ultimately has to say, at least it's never SAID OUT LOUD. Instead, the message is crafted into a theme that's transmitted through believable characters, exceptional dialogue, and a compelling story. Gorgeously photographed by the legendary Conrad L. Hall (who won his second of three Oscars), this is another film with too many great scenes to count, including an early one involving Carolyn's attempt to sell a house that should've won Bening the Oscar (she lost to Hilary Swank's performance in "Boys Don't Cry").
But everything comes back to watching Spacey's Lester wail on his pecs, stick it to his employer, buy that red Camaro, and pursue the very human goal of just wanting to look good naked.
For all his flaws, Lester Burnham really does rule.
What's not on the list:
Let's add two films where the creators of "American Beauty" crashed and burned upon their return to the same well.
With the godawful "Revolutionary Road
" director Sam Mendes hoped to find Oscar gold in American Suburbia once again, this time with the laughably melodramatic tale of a young couple crushed by the American dream during those dreaded '50s. Kate Winslet (Mendes' wife at the time) gives an embarrassingly bad performance, the requisite Crazy Guy Character has all the insight and right answers, and narcissism is once again portrayed as a value (even with young children involved). The only saving grace is DiCaprio, in the first performance he's ever given that I found real, adult, and impressive.
Screenwriter Alan Ball went one better with "Towelhead
," an amoral piece of anti-American kiddie porn where you get to watch a barely 18 year-old actress who looks the age of her character, 13, masturbate to photos of naked women and inhabit a world where she's sexually abused by all kinds of men, including an American Soldier who outright rapes her. But that's okay because the healthy result of all this is that she grow into a sexually liberated woman.