Posts Tagged ‘American Beauty’

(Part 38 of an ongoing series)

tom hanks green mile

We’re not your classic heroes… we’re the other guys.

The Shoveller (William H. Macy), Mystery Men

Having spent the past year revisiting the movies of 1999, my heavily-biased belief that 1999 was cinema’s most exciting year to date has only grown stronger.  Alas, not all the movies I’ve watched for this series possessed enough Sick Desperation in Their Laughs to crack my Top 40. But some of those also-rans still deserve a quick mention, honorable or otherwise:

But I’m A Cheerleader (directed by Jamie Babbit)

The main goal of But I’m A Cheerleader is to ridicule those “ex-gay” ministries that foolishly try to turn gay people straight. The film also has a pretty sweet love story between Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a high school cheerleader coming to terms with her sexuality, and Graham (Clea Duvall), an out-and-proud rebel. These parts of the movie are awesome, and totally 1999. Problem is, this movie should cut like a chainsaw, and instead it merely bops like a wiffle-bat. It kept making me fantasize about how much harder this premise would’ve hit had it been handled by John Waters. But perhaps even more troubling is its depiction of gay men. While lesbians Megan and Graham feel like living, breathing people, pretty much all the guys in this movie are reduced to prancing, cock-hungry sissies. It’s cool to play with stereotypes, yet when it comes to gay men, But I’m A Cheerleader seems to content to simply reinforce certain stereotypes– which essentially cancels out most of its mind-opening, tolerance-preaching intentions.

Sleepy Hollow (directed by Tim Burton)

Sleepy Hollow is frequently creepy, occasionally funny, and always gorgeous as heavenly hell. It may also contain the precise turning point in Tim Burton’s career, the point where he went from gothy maverick to tired hack. Sleepy Hollow starts promisingly yet ends in somewhat uninspired fashion– much like a career that began with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, but since Sleepy Hollow, has offered forgettable remakes like Planet Of The Apes, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (directed by Jay Roach)

1999 also saw a turning point in Mike Myers’ career. In his earlier, funnier movies (Wayne’s World, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery), he definitely utilized catchphrases, call-backs, and gag-milking even more than the average SNL player. Yet there was usually a great humility in his humor. Then the first Austin Powers became a sleeper hit that demanded a sequel, and suddenly it seemed as if Myers’ humility vanished, replaced with a conviction that audiences really wanted to see every single silly idea that popped into his head. No doubt The Spy Who Shagged Me has some hefty belly-laughs. But it also has an unhealthy number of sequences that go on so long they’d make Seth MacFarlane check his watch, and they foreshadow the caravan of lackluster vehicles Myers would unleash in the ’00s (Goldmember, The Cat In The Hat, The Love Guru).

Catherine Zeta-Jones dips beneath the lasers in Entrapment

I haven’t seen Entrapment since 1999, and all I remember about it is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ butt. Adam from Workaholics knows what I’m talkin about; dude wrote a song about it:

American Pie (directed by Paul & Chris Weitz)

American Pie gave us so much: John Cho popularizing the word ‘MILF,’ Jason Biggs boning an apple pie, Shannon Elizabeth going topless, Alyson Hannigan getting freaky. But I’m not sure American Pie gave us enough of that Sick Desperation in Our Laughter. Maybe it would have if it had raised the raunchy-comedy bar set one year earlier by There’s Something About Mary. Only American Pie didn’t exactly raise that bar, it just kind of limboed underneath the bar and nudged it with its boner.

Tumbleweeds (directed by Gavin O’Connor)

It’s a moving story of the relationship between a flighty, freewheeling, single mother (Janet McTeer) and her coming-of-age daughter (Kimberly J. Brown), it’s just not very 1999. Though there are flashes of Sick Desperation in McTeer’s outstanding performance.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (directed by George Lucas)

Without a doubt the most disappointing movie I’ll ever see three times in a theater. I kept going back, assuming my initial disappointment stemmed from setting my fanboy standards impossibly high, and that eventually I’d grow to love Episode I as much I loved Episodes IV, V, & VI.  Alas, just like everyone else not named George Lucas, I have only grown to dislike this movie more over the years– except for the pod race and the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsaber battle, which still kick ass.

Mystery Men (directed by Kinka Usher)

It seems so 1999 in theory: a subversive superhero riff starring Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Eddie Izzard, Greg Kinnear, and Tom Waits, to name a few. Unfortunately, the script could’ve used a punch-up or two; the jokes’ hit-to-miss ratio is far lower than this premise and cast deserved. Macy’s line at the end of this scene was one of the few that made me laugh out loud:

Go (directed by Doug Liman)

“OK, I know ripping off Pulp Fiction got old like two years ago, but what if we did, like, a Pulp Fiction thing but with, like, ecstasy, and Vegas, and Amway?”

“YES! But we also need a scene in a diner where a drug dealer has one of those Tarantino monologues about that comic strip Family Circus, ’cause I was in a diner this morning and I’d just done a couple bumps and I was reading the paper and I saw Family Circus and I thought to myself, ‘Why hasn’t Tarantino written a monologue about Family Circus yet?”

And the nominees for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 are…

Leaving the theater after seeing Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, I was convinced it would get like 12 Oscar nominations. Not because I thought it was that great a movie, but because this star-studded, lefty-friendly, semi-musical, Depression-era historical drama seemed like it was shovel-feeding the Academy exactly the kind of stuff they love to heap awards upon. I was way off on that prediction, but the rest of the 1999 Oscar-darlings weren’t that hard to foresee– like Lasse Hallström’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rulesa weighty-but-not-too-dark period drama with a lefty-friendly capital-M Message about the necessity of abortion.  And while I’ve got mad respect for Michael Mann’s The InsiderI have to admit that this ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama with a lefty-friendly David-vs.-Corporate-Goliath agenda was fishing hardcore for Oscar gold.

I wouldn’t say I have mad respect for Sam Mendes’ American Beauty; it’s more like reserved respect. Its Oscar-hunger is shameless (especially in Annette Bening’s performance), and it leans awfully hard on its lefty-friendly suburban ennui. Still, it’s funnier and sweeter and more haunting than most of its detractors give it credit for. There are at least 25 movies from 1999 that I would’ve voted for “Best Picture” above American Beauty, but its victory doesn’t offend me nearly as much as, say, Crash‘s victory did.

Yet the award for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 has to go to Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile. It was as if Darabont was so sore about The Shawshank Redemption losing to Forrest Gump five years earlier that he tried to make the most snub-proof Oscar-bait he could imagine. So he did another prison drama based on a Stephen King story, only this time it would star Oscar-magnet TOM FREAKING HANKS. And it would be anti-racism AND anti-death penalty. And there’d be magic, but with religious overtones, yet not so Jesusy as to alienate non-Christians. And finally, it would be three EPIC hours long.  Of course, all this calculation came to naught, and The Green Mile couldn’t generate enough buzz to outfox American Beauty. But for what it’s worth, Mr. Darabont, your film is the winner of The Sick Desperation In Your Laugh Award for Most Oscar-Hungry Picture of 1999 in a goddamn landslide.

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(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.

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(Part 3 of an ongoing series)

…it’s not that I’m lazy.  It’s that I just don’t care.

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston)

If I wasn’t so convinced by the idea that we’re essentially helpless against the eternal, spirit-crushing march of industry, I’d shudder to think of how unimpressed- if not outright embarrassed- that 1999 would be by 2012.  Surely the future will see its share of dingbat preachers predicting apocalypses that won’t come, but 2012 is basically the last “official” apocalyptic year.  And while most people think of the apocalypse as the end of the world, the word “apocalypse,” as Alan Moore demonstrated in his millennial comic Promethea, actually comes from the Greek for “revelation.”  As our previous apocalyptic year, 1999 gave us a cornucopia of revelations for us to learn from, but so far 2012 hasn’t really applied those lessons very well.

The idea of corporate America as a heartless, soul-sucking behemoth wasn’t exactly novel in 1999, but the movies of 1999 did their best to bludgeon us in the face with more warnings and helpful tips.  When doing battle against The Man, 1999 protagonists often started by retreating into adolescent rebellion.  But where American Beauty, Fight Club, and The Matrix advanced into bleaker, more dramatic theaters of war, Office Space channeled its cubicle-fury into lighter, wackier, more optimistic wish-fulfillment.

There’s truth, for instance, in Mike Judge’s barb that those who are invited to climb the office ladder are often the least deserving.  Yet we need a powerful suspension of disbelief to buy that Ron Livingston’s Peter would get promoted after weeks of aggressive, devil-may-care slacking.  Try doing that at a job you hate in the real world and watch how quickly the axe falls.

Still, there’s a good lesson there: one of the first steps toward enlightenment is to stop giving fucks you shouldn’t be giving, while still giving the necessary fucks.  As they say in Richard Linklater’s Slacker– a 1991 film that’s one of 1999’s cool older brothers- “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.”  In Office Space, Peter’s biggest mistake is that his withdrawal goes so far he becomes petty and criminal.  And though he eventually sees the error of his ways, he only gets off the hook because he’s lucky enough to have Milton torch all evidence of his misdeeds.

Milton’s deus ex machina may not be terribly satisfying in a narrative sense, but if Office Space is a fable, the resolution feels like a good moral.  As in, the cognitively-dissonant upper-management Lumberghs kept swiping our staplers and telling us yeah, I’m going to need you to go ahead and come to work on Saturday, and we the Peters didn’t do nearly enough to subvert the system. So inevitably, the Miltons will just burn the Initechs to the ground.  (Not saying I condone arson, necessarily, but seriously, the Lumberghs are totally begging for it.)  And in the end, maybe the best we can do is shovel up the rubble and construct another office building.

But hey, we’ve still got a whole quarter left in the year, and that whole Mayan calendar mythology says our apocalypse/revelation isn’t due til late December.  Maybe there’s still time for us to make 1999 proud.

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Part 2 Of An Ongoing Series

There is truth, and there are lies. And art always tells the truth. Even when it’s lying.

John Malkovich as John Cusack as Craig Schwartz as John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich

John Cusack’s Craig Schwartz has plenty of sick desperation in his laugh during the first act of Being John Malkovich.  We hear it when he flirts with Catherine Keener’s Maxine, the out-of-his-league co-worker he wants to have an affair with.  She’ll rip his pathetic ass down like it’s her favorite hobby, and he’ll often respond with that sick, desperate, 1999 laughter.

It’s not just because Craig’s intimidated by Maxine.  It’s also because Craig’s a lot like so many other notable 1999 protagonists: dispirited, frustrated, adrift, unfulfilled.  (See also Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space, The Matrix, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Election, the ensemble of Magnolia.)  Like his own puppet, he’s stuck in a “Dance of Despair and Disillusionment.”

Funny thing is, Craig’s the protagonist in the most humorous of all those other movies- maybe the most hilarious 1999 movie that isn’t South Park– and yet he suffers the most tragic fate.  And that sums up why, if I were forced to choose the best 1999 movie, Being John Malkovich would barely edge out Three Kings and Fight Club.  Being John Malkovich is so great it baffled me with its greatness the first time I saw it, and its greatness still baffles me to this day.

It’s the type of movie you’d think would spawn a decade’s worth of imitators, like Pulp Fiction or There’s Something About Mary.  Only it didn’t, really.  Its fine balance of surrealism and poignancy is so perfect, it’s like the world’s filmmakers simply stood back in awe of Being John Malkovich and were like, “We’re just gonna let Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze handle this shit from now on.”

If the movie has spearheaded one trend of the past few years, it’s the one where actors play comically unflattering caricatures of themselves.  (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kirstie Alley, Matt LeBlanc, James Van Der Beek, half the people who’ve appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)  Of course, none of those actors went nearly as far down the rabbit hole as John Horatio Malkovich.

Then again, maybe other filmmakers will eventually get around to imitating the rest of Malkovich once they’ve finally finished processing it.  There’s a galaxy of ideas in this movie, all zipping by at madcap speed, and a lot of those ideas really started to mushroom in the new millennium.  It’s not merely about “celebrity,” it’s about the desire to attain celebrity, the emptiness of celebrity, the misguided sense of entitlement we often feel we have over celebrities.  It’s not merely about the quest for immortality, it’s about how the quest for immortality is not necessarily a bad thing- although it can definitely be a very bad thing.  It’s not just about the search for identity, it’s about fucking identity until identity forgets what gender it used to be.

Most of all, though, Being John Malkovich is about Craig Schwartz, and how not to end up like him. That means doing your damnedest never to drive yourself crazy from unrequited love.  It’s very bad for the skin.

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