Friday, March 20, 2015

American Beauty (Best Picture 1999)

American Beauty is a movie about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things.

I original did not intend to list all of the unpleasant people and their actions, because I didn't want to recommend this film. On second thought, though, maybe telling you some of the unpleasantness will keep you from seeing it? So here we go. You have been warned.

Kevin Spacey plays Lester, an unhappy magazine writer who is about to be fired from his job by an efficiency expert that management has brought in.   Before that happens, he negotiates a huge severance pay with said-expert via blackmail and threats of sexual harassment. He then buys the sports car he has always wanted and starts working at a fast-food restaurant. His wife Carolyn is played by Annette Benning as a self-centered bitchy real-estate agent who no longer knows how to love him, their daughter, or even herself. She won't sleep with Lester, so he masturbates in the shower. She flirts with another realtor and they have an affair. Their daughter Jane hates them, but wants to still be a part of their lives. So, in other words, is a typical teenager. Lester lusts after her friend Angela, then uses her as a reason to start working out and shaping up. Their new neighbors' son, Ricky, is a drug dealer who is constantly videotaping everything and everyone. He falls in love with Jane, and they sleep together. Lester buys drugs from Ricky, but Ricky's father thinks they are having an affair. Angela eventually throws herself at Lester, but he wisely realizes that sleeping with her would be statutory rape, so refuses. He realizes that he has been going through a mid-life crisis, and then he is killed.

Right away this film started off on the wrong foot with me. It echoed the beginning of Billy Wilder's classic film Sunset Boulevard with a murdered narrator telling his own story. However, as already mentioned, these characters are not William Holden and Gloria Swanson. Also, the story very quickly heads into areas where Lester could not possibly know what was happening, calling into question the point of him being the narrator.

Kevin Spacey won Best Actor for his role. I suppose of the cast, he is the least un-likeable. I really wanted to see more of why his wife turned out the way she did, or what happened to make Jane, Ricky, and Angela so unpleasant. We get back-story on Ricky, but it doesn't really explain him. Anyway, Spacey does an admirable job portraying a man who will no longer allow Life to kick him around. However, they are all just caricatures. One scene in particular, when he asks one of them to pass him the vegetables during dinner and they ignore him, is typical of this film. He throws some dish at the wall and tells them he won't be ignored, or interrupted (whichever it is). In other words: a lot of action and noise about nothing.
One of the tag lines for the movie was "Look deeper." However, in the same way that I don't understand the meaning behind the title, I don't really think it's my job as the audience to bend over backwards trying to understand the film's intent. For example, an American Beauty is a type of rose, but what that has to do with anything is beyond me.  The film also won Best Director and Best Screenplay, among other awards. I find it hard to believe that this film was or is so highly regarded. I simply don't get it.

American Beauty
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1999*
Produced by Bruce Cohen & Dan Jinks
Directed by Sam Mendes
Screenplay by Alan Ball

Watch the trailer, skip the film. The trailer is better. 

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Cider House Rules
The Green Mile
The Insider
The Sixth Sense
Perhaps one of the reasons I don't appreciate American Beauty is because of the quality of its co-nominees. The Cider House Rules is a wonderfully complex (yet straight-forward) story about a doctor who performed abortions before it was legal to do so. Michael Caine won Best Supporting Actor for his role. The Green Mile is a flawed commentary on the death penalty starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan. The Insider is a corporate mystery about a whistle-blower in the tobacco industry. Russell Crowe was nominated for Best Actor. And The Sixth Sense is a terrific thriller starring Bruce Willis. See all of these before watching American Beauty.

1 comment:

  1. Russell, in my opinion, you missed the whole point of the movie. In modern American, everyone is screwed up, except the gay couple who are normal and well-adjusted. And the Bible-quoting dad with traditional values is secretly a pervert who will shoot you in the head if he thinks you're gay. No wonder it won an Oscar.