[Originally posted on November 15th, 2010.]

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.)

[Originally posted on November 15th, 2010.]

Comments (43)
  1. This post is the real American beauty.

  2. No How Was Everyone’s Day Today? I NEED MY HOW WAS EVERYONE’S DAY TODAY!

    • facetaco. How was your day?

      • NOT GOOD!

        Ugh. You guys, every time I think I’m over this, I’m just fucking not. I was spreading Nutella on my crepes this morning and I damn near lost it. It’s stupid to attach so much meaning to a website, but this place has been kinda important to me over the years. I’ve made friends here, both the real physical kind and the fake internet kind!

        • I feel the same way. Flanny and Manners are pretty much my Boston crew now, and neverabadidea is the cornerstone of the Chicago crew that Flanny’s building up. I just like being able to talk to you guys about random crap whenever I want. And it’s cool we’re all FB buddies, but it’s just not the same as this little home we’ve made.

          Also, Kelly, how are you holding up? Are you ok? Is your mom on FB, and would she be friends with me? (Seriously though girl, are you ok?? We care! And we all think you’re great!)

        • This probably won’t do much to dull the pain, but I found out today that there’s a musician that goes by the name of Leisure Muffin. You gotta enjoy the little things in life, ya know?

    • I KNOW. Where is that post?

      • I am formatting a new resume for this gig I keep getting recruited for and am wondering if anyone has any favorite typeset combinations. I’d like a serif font for the headers and sans-serif (thinking futura) for the rest of it. I may just go with Georgia, but if anyone knows a lovely serif and sans-serif combination… I’m definitely taking all suggestions.

        Also futura makes the content really wide so what could be on 3 pages is on 4 and I’m not a fan of that. I played with kearning but it’s not doing as much as I had hoped.

    • Husbandglue just watched both Andrew W.K. performances from when he was on SNL in 2002 and I have a load of laundry in the wash, so my day is on the upswing. But it started out shitty with my bus not coming on time and continued on pretty much a straight line of shitty up until about 30 minutes ago. It gets worse in the moments I remember Videogum is going away and slightly better in the moments I look back fondly on many, many, many hours spent here.

  3. I know Videogum is shutting down and Gabe is in LA, talking on a giant cellphone in a convertible with his agent and his whole conversation centers around taking points on the backend and 10% of the gross box office (and then Keanu Reeves steals the car to chase a bus? This is accurate, right?), but is it too late to nominate Life as We Know It for a WOMAT?

    • I’ll forever be satisfied that after months of campaigning I managed to get Australia! in. One of my proudest accomplishments.

      • I’m pretty sure my first comment here was nominating Code 46 and I’m still sad it wasn’t chosen because SERIOUSLY, that movie.

        • Maybe it will get WOMATTed at Reddit or Blogspot or wherever we flee to. Because I’m still psyched that my nomination (Nothing But Trouble) got in and became everything I dreamed.

          • That was you? Thank you for that! I saw that movie once when I was a child, and the memory of it has haunted me to this day, but I never actually knew what movie it was until I read that. I couldn’t have been older than 7; I just remember those garbage monster twin things playing cards or something? I don’t know, but they fucking terrified me.

            I had a similar experience with the music video for Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Freaked the shit outta me, and I didn’t even know what song it was for until years later. I never forgot that fucking video, though.

          • I still have nightmares about my cake body being cut into by Tom Petty dressed in a Victorian era suit!

  4. I wasn’t old enough to know better, but I really liked this movie when it came out. I haven’t rewatched it since ’99, but I often find myself cringing at recollections of this movie. I think if I saw this movie for the first time today, the movie theater would need revolving doors so I could walk out on this movie enough times.

    But that’s not really what I wanted to post. What I really wanted to put in print is about Gabe, actually. I know when he left Videogum I wrote something dumb because I figured an earnest farewell would be corny given that I don’t, you know, know him, and he comes across as the sort of person who isn’t self-involved enough to really take to heart what some random dude praising him in a comment section of a blog. But now that Videogum is going away I just want to say, for whatever it’s worth, into the ether, that Gabe is a damn genius. This WMOAT post and the hundreds of others takedowns of awful pieces of pop culture that Gabe gave us are just very special. I can’t think of anyone as funny, as insightful and as razor sharp. In short, Gabe is a national treasure.

  5. Also, I like Kevin Spacey, but did anyone else find him just sort of checked-out and bland in this one? Like, his sardonic wit just drifted a little under “dry” and right into “non-engaged?” Kevin Spacey? More like Kevin … uh …

    • I saw this movie in the theater in college, and at the time I thought he was fantastic. As we walked out of the movie I said I was sure he was going to win for Best Actor (he did).

      Now that I’m older I can see what you’re saying, but I can also still see why the performance was considered great (though I no longer actually like the movie as a whole). As Gabe detailed in this post, his character is loathsome. But he managed to take that character and make audiences sympathize, which is fairly impressive.

      • He’s also one of those actors who just needs to win for something. It almost doesn’t matter what. The Academy goes, “He was in something again? Let’s give him the win so we can move on.” I started watching House Of Cards last night and now that R2 mentions it, I see what he accomplishes there as kind of huge: His character is not funny, full of life, or likable in any way — but he makes it compelling. He could sit there wearing a reserved almost bland face, sort of rumpled clothes, in a poorly lit room — and it’s impossible to look away. He’s compelling.

        That said, there’s only one worse Best Picture in my lifetime. Hoo, this stinkeroo!

  6. #1) I loved this movie when it came out, but also I was a 16 year old who had a weird crush on Kevin Spacey. I was a dramatic theater kid who thought DEEP THOUGHTS all the time. I loved Kevin Spacey so much that I gave him the highest honor: including his last name in my AIM screen name.

    That said, everything Gabe wrote about American Beauty is completely accurate.

    #2) I know I’m not a regular commenter, but I’ve read this site almost every day since I discovered it a few months after it launched. I was bedridden from a pretty terrible car accident and had nothing to do but browse the internet all day long. I clicked a link that took me to Gabe’s Live Vlog and from there read every single post. It sounds cliche, but Videogum helped me through a really rough time. Once the site grew and had such a variety of witty, funny and kind monsters I never considered it could end. There are lots of you that I feel like I know, even if we’ve never spoken. I’m really sad that it’s over. ))((

  7. I will always love this post the most of all the WMOAT posts because I loved this movie SO MUCH when it came out, and EVERYTHING said here is right. Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning should go to couples’ therapy or else just make a suicide pact. Now that I’m married and living in the suburbs, this whole “oh poor me in my giant house and wife and family” is so much more garbage than I thought before. If you’re unhappy, you only have yourself to blame and if you’re a grown man who would like to act like and fuck teenagers, you have a very pathetic view of fulfillment. Also the teenage girl is angsty because her parents exist? BARF BARF BARF. Everybody grow up and then kill yourselves.

    Thanks again, Gabe, for a wonderful takedown of a real piece of garbage.

  8. The original Videogum Deathbed post from Kelly no longer mentions SpinMedia. Scandal! Censorship!

  9. Speaking of WMOAT, I would like to nominate the WMOAT for Boondock Saints as the best thread for best thread by non regular Videogum commenters. More specifically, Audrey Allen’s contributions. Here’s a taste.

    “I have 8 POSTERS in my room. If it was a crappy movie, WHY WOULD I HAVE 8 POSTERS OF IT?!”

    “To each his own. But, I loved both Boondock Saints movies. But whatever I guess me, my aunt ,my parents, and all my friends have crappy taste in movies.”

    And my favorite:


  10. I’m not a regular commenter and, honestly, I fell off the Videogum train for a while after moving and starting a new job and whatnot, but I’m very very sad that this site is…doing what it’s doing (I can’t bring myself to say “dying” or “going away.) But, I am happy that this WOMAT was chosen to get reposted because I’m almost positive it is the post that brought me to this site that gave me so much of my pop culture critical eye and a lot of my current speech patterns for jokes. I am so sad I never go to have a connection with the community here, but I will miss laughing with you guys from afar.

    thenewkid (Except not really because I made this account in Aug 2011. Time flies when you aren’t paying attention.)

  11. Goddammit I am going to miss this site. I remember when WMOAT was something that made me look forward to Mondays, and there were times when I was more excited for it than for TV shows I watched. Gabe truly had a special talent for ripping awful things to shreds, and even when I liked the movie, I would still find myself agreeing with his points. This entry is a good example, although I haven’t seen it since sometime in college, so my opinion might be different today. I will say in defense of this movie and it’s fans, if you grew up in a really superficial and bland suburban town, this movie really does nail a lot of the awful things about it, and is definitely why I loved it so much in high school/college.

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