A Look Closer at American Beauty
posted by Paul on 9/19/02
I feel like I've been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I'm just now waking up. - Lester Burnham
I've always contended that the term "masterpiece" applies to movies that can be appreciated equally upon repeated viewings, won't depreciate with age and are virtually flawless in execution. Materpieces, brilliantly crafted works, never lose their appeal and hold up to scrutiny, transcending time. Goodfellas and The Godfather are, in my opinion, masterpiece movies: they still resonate. Other movies, however, have what I call the Titanic Effect. You watch them the first time and you're blown away - so much so that you miss or remain unperturbed by the flaws. They are spectacles, essentially designed for one-time viewing. Watch them again and the aura starts to evaporate.
We live in a hyperbolic age and the media clings desperately to tired cliches and deceptive marketing campaigns. Critics have long been searching for the great American movie, a piece that defines the dream and the dream gone sour. We've grown tired of the Brady Bunch mantra. A family that is overwhelmingly happy and functional is a rare commodity these days. With a shift in attitudes and independent sensibilities coming to the forefront of cinema, Hollywood decided that showing the taboo life of behind-closed-doors was a more authentic portrayal of the culture. Artists, so often bound by audience expectation or studio research, were finally able to enjoy the catharsis of bringing all-too-familiar trauma to the screen. The nineties indy scene was, in many ways, a hark back to great seventies' cinema: personal visions were popular again. And "family-in-strife" became a genre all of its own, those awkward silences and years of hurt perfectly embodied on screen.
"I remember when gay old time was nothing more than Flintstones' lyrics. Dirty faggots! Hey, is that Fabio?! What a nice young man!
I first saw American Beauty in 1999, when it was playing a select few theatres and reviewing well. I didn't know what to expect, watching the movie without prior knowledge of the pre-release hype and not tracking its progress. It was a great experience and, being from the UK (with its delayed and ill-placed release dates), I enjoyed that rare experience of being one of the first people to see a great work. It felt good. When I saw the movie, I knew I had seen something special. Beauty had a Scorsese energy to it, and characters who seemed raw, real and very unique.
American Beauty IS a great movie. American Beauty is NOT, despite the overuse of the term, a masterpiece.
I still love what American Beauty has to say about the world, how it's richly textured with dark themes and deep issues. It obliterates years of movies cliches and forces its audience to consider their own life: a thinking-person's movie, albeit a little convenient towards the end. As I watched it the first time, I was amazed how well everything held together. It didn't overstay its welcome, the characters were well drawn and the performances were uniformly superb. And while I still maintain that the movie is pitch-perfect, not taking a single wrong turn, watching it again seems like something of a parlor trick. There is a fundamental flaw in the design, as opposed to the execution, a recipe that M. Night Shyamalan is using all too often. Once you discover the gimmicks that everyone is not what they pretend to be and that Lester's voiceover is an echo from the grave, the movie loses some of its appeal. It's like watching one of those tightly-woven suspense thrillers where, once the twists have been unravelled, the movie loses a few points. Everything is primed for a twist which, just as in Fight Club, loses its impact after a while. Lester's fantasies are certainly amusing and similar devices have been employed in Six Feet Under and Ally McBeal; the "look closer" placements and prison cell framing (Lester framed in such a way to suggest his life is imprisoning), however, amount to little more than clever gimmicks.
"Please take your finger out of my butt! Oh, sorry, that's your tongue. Yummy!"
The movie's charm is in how it can affect you the first time around. Like childhood nostalgia, Beauty is one of those intangibles that seems better at the time. Enjoy it the first time and live on the memories. Watch it a couple more times and it begins to seem a little forced. I presume that most cinema-goers were wowed the first time they saw the movie. It has twists, a likable protagonist, a witty/poignant screenplay and shifts from the sleep-inducing arty pretensions of most independent fare. In short, it can be enjoyed even by those who are incapable of "looking closer" as much as the true thinkers. It never bores. Full of big movie moments and flash, the movie was ready-packaged for Oscar success. It certainly isn't as challenging as Magnolia, which had the misfortune of competing in the Oscars that same year. For my money, Magnolia was robbed - both critically and at the box office. If you watch both movies side-by-side, I'd say Magnolia is by far the superior picture, saying more about the human condition and doing it with much more honesty and style than Beauty.
Magnolia has a small number of devotees, but it will probably age better than Beauty. In many ways, it already has. Nevertheless, it was never held in the same esteem as Beauty. It is a long, challenging film which has a lot to say and takes its time in doing so. It can be enjoyed on repeated viewings and, each time you watch it, you'll notice something new every time. After your second "look closer" at Beauty, you have to admire the artistry, but it has no new surprises to offer. Magnolia has the bigger themes and the more engaging characters. Both movies carry the themes of "the past catching up" and familial unrest, but Magnolia can be read in so many ways and ventures into surprising terrain. You have to be quite attentive to make all the connections. The themes aren't spelled out in the same way as they are in Beauty, with its acerbic voiceover guiding us through the narrative. Beauty performed better because it was easier to get, and the characters were all types (unique, loud and ripe for good actors). Moreover, the movie wasn't released long after another excellent suburban angst drama - The Ice Storm - and was just a more accessible version of Ang Lee's gem. Magnolia was influenced more by seventies' ensemble pieces. As such, it is multi-layered and superbly threaded.
The family sit down to enjoy a delicious Meal Mover, courtesy of Richard Simmons - promoting suburban angst and irrational homophobia since 1972.
Strangely, Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham was perceived as a hero. At first, the character was a breath of fresh air. Spacey's sardonic tone and solid acting had a lot to do with how we felt about him. Unfortunately, the character is far from commendable as a human being. The audience find themselves rooting for this "hero", a man who quits his job to flip burgers, isolates himself from his family, goes on a vain quest for enlightenment and fantasizes about his daughter's underage friend. I'm not trying to sound facetious, but imagine an actor such as Gary Busey or Jack Nicholson playing the part...Do you think Lester would seem a little more creepy? Throw Robin Williams in there and it's a horror movie! Spacey's kooky charm carries the picture, but the sentiment at the conclusion of the movie that he's finally found what's important in life feels a little contrived and tacked on. It's a pretty superficial "Life is Wonderful" sentiment which doesn't balance with the story. Lester's voiceover tells us he's happy and philosophical, but by the movie's end, he's made aliens out of his family. His only selfless deed is in failing to take advantage of Angela.
That goes back to my original point. The execution is great, but there isn't a real human core in Beauty - it's comprised of movie characters, like the closeted homosexual dad who doesn't take rejection too well. Or the freaky neighbour who sells dope and finds beauty in the visual of a plastic bag floating through the air. How many people do you know who behave like that? Isn't there just a bit more truth in Magnolia? Sam Mendes' movie goes about its business in a similar way to Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece, but does (I feel) manipulate us into liking or disliking certain characters. For instance, we're supposed to sympathize with Lester because he's put-upon, but then he decides to go on a self-obsessed route of fun, complete with sarcastic zingers and rose petal fantasies. In reality, if your Dad quit his job and started hanging out with the creepy kid across the road whilst smoking pot and working in Mc Donald's, you wouldn't exactly think of him as a hero.
"Would you like your beverage spiked with extra sarcasm?"
Almost without exception, American Beauty represents a high point for everyone involved. Spacey's subsequent movies, even though they're of a strong caliber, have failed to evoke the same critical plaudits or box-office success. In truth, he's usually the best actor in any movie he graces, although he's never been touted as a champion of the box office. Wes Bentley's It's Annette Bening's best work and, although her union with golden boy Warren Beatty didn't hurt her chances of an Oscar win, she delivered an intense performance. Mena Suvari found a role that played to her strengths and, barring a major surprise, her more-than-meets-the-eye cheerleader is her career peak. Every other role she's played suggests an actress of limited range. Nevertheless, Beauty's creative talent have possibly moved on to better ventures: writer Alan Ball created one of the top five shows in all of television in Six Feet Under. Mendes isn't hurting for exposure, either, by landing Kate Winslet and securing strong directing gigs.
Beauty, as competent as it is, begs the question: Is a movie still great if it loses its lustre on subsquent viewings? Well, in my opinion, it's still a great movie. It had me, it hooked me and it deserved great success. It's wonderfully entertaining, has a lot to say and is exceptionally crafted. It just doesn't feel anywhere near as relevant as it once did.
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