American Beauty won the 1999 Academy Award for Best Picture. Whoops! This is a pretentious, misguided, ham-fisted film. But the Academy’s decision actually makes more sense if you look at what the film was up against. The other nominees that year were The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, and The Sixth Sense. Really? An M. Night Shyamalan movie And The Green Mile both nominated for Best Picture in the same year?! WHOOPS REDUX! As much as it pains me to say something like this–because talk about pretentious, misguided, and ham-fisted–but American Beauty is the very definition of a “pre-9/11 movie,” if there is such a thing. It depicts and is of a world that no longer exists. A world in which The Green Mile and The Sixth Sense could be competing for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. A world in which it seems to be agreed that the emotional struggles of teenagers are as valid as the emotional struggles of adults (they’re not, sorry teenagers). It depicts that world poorly, and its depiction has not aged well, but if there is one thing we can take away from this portrait it is that for as horrible as 9/11 was, maybe we’re better off now, because yuck.
American Beauty starts with a voice-over narration from Kevin Spacey describing his seemingly average life in suburbia and all the malaise that entails, and then gives us the dramatic bumper that within a year he will be dead. Wait a second, if he is going to be dead, then how is he narrating this movie? Oh, he is an angel in heaven. COOL. Already off to a great start for sure. Were the rights to Tuesdays with Morrie not available? Because we could have saved a lot of time and just adapted Tuesdays with Morrie. Anyway: Kevin Spacey is so miserable that he masturbates in the shower. IN THE SHOWER! And his wife, Annette Bening, is so miserable that she…gardens…and is friendly with the neighbors! OH, THE TWISTING PATHS THAT LIFE TAKES! Being white is, as we know, very hard. You guys have seen this movie, right? We can cut to the chase? Kevin Spacey has a midlife crisis. He quits his job and starts smoking weed and exercising. Meanwhile, Annette Bening has an affair with Mr. Cohen, and their daughter, Thora Birch, dates the “weird” next door neighbor, who loves to sell weed and tape everything on his Hi-8 video camera (LOL). Also: Kevin Spacey REALLY wants to fuck Mena Suvari. And Wes Bentley’s dad is mean and owns Nazi china. And Annette Bening buys a gun.
At the end of the movie, Chris Cooper shoots Kevin Spacey with a gun because of “faggots” and an almost comically bad “mistaken identity” scene involving a rolled joint and a papasan. It is actually set up a little bit like a murder mystery, with Thora Birch and Wes Bentley talking about killing him, and Annette Bening driving home with her gun on the seat, but the only mystery here is why someone didn’t shoot Kevin Spacey much earlier in the film. Or why he didn’t shoot himself.
As mysterious as who built Stonehenge!
The main problem with American Beauty is everything. It attempts to take a sardonic view of modern (at least modern by 1999 standards) middle-class suburban life, a moving A.M. Homes novel, if you will, except that A.M. Homes is great, and this is the opposite. It’s hard to reveal the seamy underbelly of things if you don’t even get the belly right. Start with the opening sequence: Kevin Spacey is watching his wife through the bay window of their beautiful house as she prunes roses in her rose garden and speaks happily about them with the neighbors. “When did she become so unhappy,” he wonders. Wait, why is she unhappy? Because she’s gardening and being friendly? Those are both really great ways to spend your time. More people should try both of them. As it turns out, she is pretty unhappy, but it’s not because of roses, it’s because she’s married to a self-absorbed, self-pitying, child molester.
American Beauty glorifies Kevin Spacey’s “liberating” mid-life crisis as if he is living out the ideal way for a man to regain his virility and self-worth. Uh, no. I’m sorry, but there is absolutely no reason to respect an adult who quits his job in order to smoke weed (that he buys from a teenager) and play with radio controlled cars (huh?) and lift 10 pound weights in the garage because you want to get into teen-raping shape. It is not brave and noble at all. Or even cool or enviable. It’s fucking pathetic. At one point he gets a job running the grill at a fast food restaurant because it reminds him of the summer he did that when he was 14. Gross! YOU ARE A FUCKING ADULT WITH A CHILD AND A MORTGAGE! I AM SORRY THAT YOU ARE UNHAPPY IN YOUR MARRIAGE, BUT ALSO IT IS TIME TO GET REAL AND ALSO WORKING AT A FAST FOOD RESTAURANT IS NOT FUN, THIS MOVIE, AND IT’S OBNOXIOUS OF YOU TO EVEN SUGGEST OTHERWISE. Assholes.
Actually, to go back to the weed and weights thing for a second: so you’re telling me that Kevin Spacey, a full grown man, makes sweeping lifestyle decisions based on the advice and/or gossip of teenagers? Perfect. (I repeat my question: why does he not kill himself?!) When he first meets Wes Bentley, who invites him to go out to the parking lot to smoke weed, which no he doesn’t because teenagers don’t invite adults they don’t know out to the parking lot to smoke weed at a real estate brokers’ convention, he quits his job on the spot, and Kevin Spacey calls him his personal hero. Really? He is 17 years old and he quit his minimum wage catering job. DUDE IS LIVING THE DREAM! Shut up, both of you, but mostly just you, Kevin Spacey.
Which brings us, of course, to the part where Kevin Spacey wants to RAIL Mena Suvari SO HARD. Ugh. UGH. Why? Because she's stupid? The movie's fetishization of teenage sexuality completely overlooks the part where teenagers are functionally retarded and also happen to be really bad at sex. There is nothing less sexy than when a teenager opens its mouth and says ANYTHING. (That being said, I am in love with the 19-year-old cashier at the bodega around the corner, so if anyone has Dr. Drew's pager number, I'd love to ask his advice. But my point still stands.) The scene in which Kevin Spacey pulls down Mena Suvari's skirt (before unbuttoning her blouse? I think [know] you’re doing it weird, dude) is literally one of the grossest things I’ve seen in awhile. It’s only grosser to imagine all the film crew people standing around making sure not to breathe a sound while they did take after take. “Slower, Kevin.” Barf.
Aging comes with lots of complications and a fair amount of regret. Happiness is elusive. But at no point does this movie address the simplest of questions: if Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening hate each other so much (and they REALLY hate each other) why don’t they get divorced? This isn’t the 1530s. King Kevin VIII doesn’t need to rewrite the fucking Bible. It is this false premise, the shucking-and-jiving avoidance of a very simple and obvious solution to everyone’s problems that forces the movie down these ludicrous paths. Example: just because a dude is a homophobic ex-Marine doesn’t actually make him a murderer, and the movie’s buzzcut-thin depiction of Chris Cooper’s two-dimensionally-angry character is as obnoxious and “convenient” as his character’s opinion of gays. Not to mention the fact that no man, gay or straight, has ever said to another man: “let’s get you out of those wet clothes,” as Kevin Spacey does for absolutely no reason other than that it propels us towards a soap opera conclusion.
Of course, Alan Ball has made a cottage industry out of creating garbage soap operas disguised as something else. If he was in charge of a fancy restaurant, everything would be hot dogs, but it would be deconstructed hot dogs in ketchup reduction. Whatever, dude, hot dogs is still hot dogs. “But it’s a vampire bar!” Shut up.
One thing I will grant American Beauty is that it might be the first movie to ever feature a smoothie?
Congrats. And I do like this part:
Haaaa. That girl rules. Someone please make a GIF of her face at the end there, thanks.
Next week: We have come to the end of this round, if you can even believe it. There will be a brief hiatus as the next round of nominees (oof) is selected and announced. Unless someone shoots me in the head first. Come on! My heart is bursting, too! Shoot me! (Just kidding, please do not shoot me. It was a poorly thought out joke in keeping with some of the themes of this post. If anyone shoots me in the head, I will be so mad.)