(Part 6 of an ongoing series)
…I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey)
American Beauty is a movie that asks us to “look closer,” and yet, so much is right there on the surface, painted in bold red. This isn’t in itself a problem- after all, 1999 wasn’t exactly a subtle year. The biggest problem is that there’s two clashing kinds of bluntness fighting for our attention, each one constantly threatening to undermine the other.
On one side of the picket fence, American Beauty flashes us with its bald emotional honesty. Sometimes that honesty is powerful, like when Ricky (Wes Bentley) says a tender goodbye to his near-catatonic mother (Allison Janney), or when Lester (Kevin Spacey) and Angela (Mena Suvari) bond after almost having sex. Other times, the honesty is banal. Where, say, Edward Norton’s voice-over in Fight Club offers wicked, subversive commentary, Lester’s narration pretty much exists to underline obvious subtext: “Of course, in a way, I was dead already,” or, “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for about 20 years and I’m just now waking up.”
And quite often, the honesty is just plain schmaltzy. Part of me wants to be moved by the windblown plastic bag, and I do think it’s a poetic metaphor. But I can hardly stand to watch Wes Bentley’s monologue spelling out why the plastic bag is such a poetic metaphor that makes his heart hurt. Even Forrest Gump had the decency to simply let the feather be the feather.
I’d be inclined to cut the sentimentality more slack if it weren’t constantly undermined by the other bluntness, the kind that keeps trying to pole-vault American Beauty into campier territory. Character traits are too-frequently highlighted through words rather than illustrated through actions. Chris Cooper’s Colonel Fitts is a strict homophobe who HATES FUCKING FAGGOTS. Angela’s a vain sexpot who LOVES MAKING MEN WANT TO FUCK HER. Of course, the third act shows that Col. Fitts might actually be a severely-repressed homosexual, and that Angela is actually an insecure virgin, but these revelations shouldn’t have been treated like big twists. They’re such obvious choices, they’d have been better off revealed in the first act and explored with more complexity throughout the story. That is, if American Beauty really wanted to “look closer.”
Then there’s Annette Bening’s Carolyn Burnham, who tends to tap-dance toward farce while everyone else in the cast keeps it more or less real.
I feel like I could’ve loved American Beauty if it either added a few more shades of gray, or went all the way over the top into full-farce (which would’ve made the more contrived elements in that rain-soaked third act easier to swallow). As it is, I can’t take it as seriously as it wants to be taken.
That said, I can never stay too mad at American Beauty, since it’s often very funny on purpose. I still quote “I rule!” and “You wanna have like 10 thousand of his babies!” at least several times a year.
But most importantly, I still often think about Lester Burnham’s beautiful Mona Lisa grin as he lies dead in a pool of his own blood. Like, Smile! You never know when a psycho’s gonna sneak up behind you and blow your brains out! That image is so very 1999 that I can’t imagine 1999 without it.