American Beauty (1999) ***
Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Alan Ball. Photography, Conrad L. Hall. Editing, Tariq Anwar and Chris Greenbury. Production design, Naomi Shohan . Music, Thomas Newman. Producers, Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks. Cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts), Chris Cooper (Colonel Fitts), Scott Bakula (Jim No. 1) and Sam Robards (Jim No. 2). A Dreamworks release. 115 minutes. R (language, sex)
My friend Tomas de Torquemada is a very inquisitive fellow.
TT: Why did you wait this long to review American Beauty?
EJ: My paper has limited space. I gave the priority to other titles.
EJ: Because too many worthy films get here without the ballyhoo, publicity, promotions, previews, TV "interviews, " or reviewers' glowing quotes. Hence, many persons miss them -- especially small productions, independent ones and especially foreign films.
TT: Yet doesn't movie quality eventually speak for itself?
EJ: Are you kidding?
TT: But at least some non-hyped, unfamiliar titles do make it on clocal screens.
EJ: They do. But the publicity is still zilch, the big chains schedule few showings, and/or don't keep them long enough for word-of-mouth to bring in the public.
TT: What about the art houses?
EJ: These are often too indigent for big ads. Since the distributors push the big, commercial titles, whenever a good but unfamiliar movie does arrive, its best -- often only -- friends are positive reviews in local media.
TT: So it's not hopeless.
EJ: Not totally, but ninety percent. With rare exceptions, individual critics wield no power. What does is a mass of praise coming from the majority of the media. Even then, that works mostly for popular, mainstream films.
TT: Without exception?
EJ: No, I said "mostly. " There are surprises. The Blair Witch Project, an original, independent production made for a shoestring, has done extremely well, partly thanks to clever distributors who spent a fortune on promotion. But by and large, the masses hardly read reviews. Let's not fool ourselves about the influence of movie critics.
TT: Let's get back to your priorities. What are some of the recent movies you reviewed while postponing American Beauty?
EJ: It was obvious that this film was being received enthusiastically by everybody and his sister. My own two cents would not make any difference, either way.
TT: So you concentrated on?. . . .
EJ: . . . solid but unknown titles, many of them foreign: the hilarious French The Dinner Game; the beautiful Chinese The King of Masks; the quirky British My Life So Far; the French gem for connoisseurs, Autumn Tale. American films like the wrenching Holocaust film The Last Days; small, good movies which deal with minorities and had no publicity, such as Trick, or the Canadian Better Than Chocolate.
TT: But you did include some mainstream titles.
EJ: Yes. Even duds, as save-your-money warnings. Or else items that were getting negative reviews but, in my opinion, were highly entertaining. Like Double Jeopardy.
TT: Well now, what about American Beauty?
EJ: It 's good. The acting by Spacey and Bening is superb. Spacey is highly versatile and talented, can suggest (here and elsewhere) ambiguity like nobody's business. This ability serves fleshes out a character who, while not eccentric or original, melds anomie, revolt and libido.
In her best roles Bening has been a charmer with character, but no passive sweetie-pie. Here charm is replaced by nastiness. in the difficult role of a compulsive neatnik of the Martha Stewart persuasion, as well as an ambitious and shallow creature. She brings a weird kind of complexity to an unbending heart and brain.
Everyone knows by now that the film is about a dysfunctional society of which we see only a small section, which is conveniently set in suburbia. Conveniently because it keeps characters topologically close to one another. But there is no real reason for suburbia to be, as intended, a genuine culprit. The who, what, where, how of the movie could as easily be in a megalopolis, in non-suburbia or non-exurbia.
There's almost a genre in which suburbanites are the target of ironies. The last one was Ang Lee's exceptionally powerful and memorable The Ice Storm. If you go back many years, one of the pioneering movies in the genre was the sad and sadly forgotten The Swimmer (1968) with Burt Lancaster(from a John Cheever story). In 1975 we had The Stepford Wives (from an Ira Levin novel) that made is caustic points by going to science-fiction and its own brand of horror. The list is long.
If there is no horror, literally, in American Beauty, the picture is a gallery of creeps or creepiness. No one is immune or has redeeming values, from the protagonists to the two girls (and classmates) to Budy Kane, the smooth real-estate Czar who is not too far removed from business zombieism and with whom Carolyn Burnham has a sadly mechanical affair. Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts, the 18-year old schoolmate, compulsive videographer, voyeur, druggie and drug-dealer is invidiously romanticized by the movie (a mistake, in my opinion). He gave me the creeps. Creepy too is his father, retired Colonel Fitts (effectively played by Chris Cooper), with his Nazi paraphernalia, his silent, near-catatonic wife (we guess why she's that way at film's end, but I won't reveal it in case you have not seen the movie), his relationship with his son. Creepiest of all may be the son presenting his urine samples to Dad, so as to show he he is drug-free.
Also creepy is the supporting role of Lester's new immediate boss who stands for materialistic, arrivistic heartlessness, and stupidity. When the rebelling Lester tells him off you fell like applauding. But this is a secondary, though well worked-in character. The main ones, father, mother, daughter and only child Jane (Thora Birch in a Christine --The Ice Storm -- Ricci part), her pal Angela and Ricky make up a sextet which is also a SEX-tet.
Each, in his/her way, is a sicko. Not that this is unjustified. Angela, the end-of-millennium Lolita, is an icky creature, almost repelling for me, but as the beacon of Lester's mid-life-crisis libido and his alienation from Carolyn, she fits in well.
Even so, I keep thinking of Gertrude Stein whose words ought to be on the Decalogue of Filmmaking: "I prefer the normal to the abnormal, since the normal is so much more complex and interesting. "
Summarized in High Concept fashion American Beauty is primarily about Lester who takes stock of his life and comes up with a negative balance. Unnecessarily, the film opens with Lester addressing us "de profundis, " telling us about his last days on this planet and about his impending death. This deja vu gimmick detracts from the story, as does much of the over-the-top script. It substitutes "more is more" for the advice "less is more. "
The overkill goes as far as packing, claustrophobically and most improbably, almost all the characters as next-door-neigbhors.
Admittedly, the photography, by a master, is superb. There is also quite an assortment of humorous bits, not the least of which is Lester, semi-drunk, alcohol in hand, starting to make passes at his own wife who worries about her high-priced couch being soiled. What's extra funny to me is that I don't blame her.