Film: Is That All There Is?

[EXT. RANCH HOUSE—DAY]

Tight shot of a door opening to reveal a pleasant-looking MAN in a business suit, briefcase in hand. (Soundtrack: birds chirping.)

PULL BACK to show the neatly painted house, well-kept lawn and brand-new station wagon. It’s a sunny morning in suburbia. As the man glances at his watch and starts down the walk to the waiting car, neatly stepping around a tricycle, his pretty WIFE, 12-year-old DAUGHTER and eight-year-old SON appear in the doorway, smiling and waving….

Time out for a pop quiz. This man is:

(a) sleeping with his secretary

(b) beating his wife

(c) molesting his daughter

(d) molesting his son

(e) a caring, considerate breadwinner who goes to church every Sunday and loves his family more than life itself.

If you answered (e), you don’t get out much. In Hollywood, suburbia is hell, a clean, well-lit place where benighted souls afflicted by the false consciousness of the middle classes are sentenced to lead empty lives of not-so-quiet desperation, from which they take time out only to get high, abuse a child, or go shopping. The sole exceptions to this iron rule are teenagers, provided they dress down, affect surly expressions, treat their parents with casual contempt, have sex early and often (or at least try to), and promise to vote Democratic once they turn 18. Small wonder, then, that Sam Mendes’ American Beauty is being advertised, accurately enough, as “the best- reviewed movie of the year,” since at first glance—not to mention second and third—it appears to embody nearly every cliché on the above list.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), the protagonist of American Beauty, is a supercilious cynic whose meaningless job (he’s a low-level reporter for a media magazine) is about to be down-sized out of existence. He hasn’t made love to his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) for so long that his principal sexual outlet now consists of masturbating in the shower. Jane (Thora Birch), Lester’s teenage daughter, regards him with scorn and pity, while he in turn lusts after Angela (Mena Suvari), her Lolita-like best friend. Meanwhile, Carolyn, a tightly wound real-estate agent who plays Bobby Darin records at dinnertime and cares more for her roses than her family, is having a torrid affair with her chief competitor.

As if this weren’t enough, the Burnhams have just acquired an exceedingly creepy set of next-door neighbors. Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a retired Marine who collects Nazi memorabilia, subjects his son Ricky (Wes Bentley) to monthly drug tests, and beats him up from time to time just to keep him on his toes. Ricky, who affects a mask of quiet submission in his father’s presence, is in fact a black-clad aesthete and amateur filmmaker who runs a thriving little dope-dealing business on the side.

Having dealt these well-thumbed cards, Mendes and scriptwriter Alan Ball proceed to play them in ways that are occasionally smart and funny but more often embarrassingly predictable. Lester blackmails his employers into giving him a huge severance package, goes to work at a fast-food joint, and starts pumping iron and smoking marijuana to impress Angela. Jane falls in love with Ricky, whose father, a raving homophobe, falls madly in love with the new, pumped-up Lester.

Yes, American Beauty is just that smug, just that obvious, just that contemptuous of ordinary middle-class family life—except when it isn’t. For somewhere beneath the thick veneer of cheap laughs and easy answers, Mendes and Ball seem to have been trying to make quite a different sort of film, one that comes honestly to grips with materialism and its discontents. To see that film, though, you have to ignore much of the one on screen (including absolutely everything having to do with Ricky’s father, who is approximately as believable as Bill Clinton). Therein lies the paradox of American Beauty: the liberal intolerance of its makers systematically undercuts the very points they are trying to make.

“I’m 42 years old,” Lester announces at the outset in a voiceover shamelessly pinched from Sunset Boulevard. “In less than a year, I’ll be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet. In a way, I’m dead already.” What Lester means, of course, is that he is spiritually dead, the proof of which is that even when he is finally jolted back into consciousness by the loss of his job, his automatic response is to cleave even more frantically to the visible world, turning his back on his real life—his wife and child—to pursue the nubile Angela. Lester’s increasingly obsessive attempts to get into shape are a metaphor for his deluded materialism: at film’s end, he looks fabulous but is empty inside.

In the last ten minutes of American Beauty, much of the nonsense of the preceding hour and a half abruptly peels away as Angela offers herself at long last to Lester, who realizes in a terrible moment of epiphany that he has been pursuing a mirage (for it turns out that she is in fact a frightened virgin). All at once the scales fall from his eyes, and instead of having sex with Angela, he comforts her like the father he has forgotten how to be. In that moment, we can see his shriveled soul coming back to life, and here, too, we see for the first time just how good Spacey is. Throughout most of the film, he takes the script’s elephantine ironies at face value, turning in a performance notable mainly for its snideness. But as soon as Lester gets real, so does Spacey, and in the final scene, a parade of complex emotions—delusion, dawning comprehension, self-loathing, repentance—marches across his face with the galvanizing clarity only a great actor can summon.

Alas, at this point, things take an irreversibly wrong turn (the final plot twist will make you groan out loud), and as a result, you are likely to go home fixated on all that is banal about American Beauty, of which there is no shortage. My cliche meter nearly broke, for example, once it became clear that Ricky was being offered up as the film’s moral touchstone, the only character in tune with his soul. Similarly, the way in which Lester’s wife is presented as a robot of ambition is so gratuitously cruel, so devoid of true sympathy, as to border on the hateful (an impression that Bening’s wonderfully precise performance inadvertently serves to reinforce).

Such coarseness makes it difficult to give full credit to Mendes and Ball for what appears to have been a genuinely serious attempt on their parts to make a quasi-religious movie. To be sure, most critics have been notably reluctant to impute religious significance to American Beauty, no doubt in many cases out of ignorance, but to me the point is self-evident. When Ricky explains to Jane that he films the seemingly meaningless occurrences of everyday life in the hope of catching glimpses of what he calls “an entire life behind things,” surely he is speaking of the supernatural world that is our true home, just as Lester’s final monologue (which poaches as shamelessly from Our Town as the opening did from Sunset Boulevard) plainly implies that the spiritual life can and must be pursued everywhere—yea, even unto the suburbs!

Too bad that so powerful a message had to be obscured by the reflexive youth-worship and bourgeois-baiting that prevent American Beauty from adding up to more than the sum of its not infrequently compelling parts. Being bourgeois, after all, is not the same thing as being good, and a film whose clever makers had dared to question their own moral superiority (no preacher should ever be smug) might have been vastly more effective in persuading its comfortable viewers that hard bodies do not always harbor beautiful souls.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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