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American Beauty

Metaphorical overkill

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by Alan Ball

With Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper

DreamWorks seems to be learning lessons -- but they’re entirely the wrong kind of lessons. After some early good-to-middling films doing good-to-middling business, it seems that the strategy should be simple: make better movies. Instead, they seem to be just making better hype, while the quality of their movies just went down the drain. American Beauty comes with an aura of dazzlingly positive reviews -- which, I presume, simply reflects the film critics’ thirst for something original, irrespective of quality. There is not much quality to be witnessed in this film: it’s not the worst I’ve seen this year, but it’s decidedly the most annoying movie I’ve seen all year.

On the other hand, maybe even the word original is too generous. Other than the film’s tone -- a deadpan black tragicomedy -- there’s nothing remotely original there. Even the storyline can be, in true Hollywood fashion, summarized as a combination of two recent films: Office Space and American Pie. I realize I’m comparing a film which is ostensibly a work of art to two unabashedly simplistic pop comedies. The thing is, American Beauty is a laughable failure as a work of art, being pretentious, simplistic and self-important. Everything in it that works feels like a derivative of films like Office Space and American Pie.

The story centers on Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who has an eye-opening encounter. Saddled with a soul-sucking job, a shrill wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and a sullen daughter Jane (Thora Birch), he encounters a vision of grace and loveliness: his daughter’s cheerleader friend Angela (Mena Suvari). Instantly lust-smitten, Lester looks at his life and decides to live it the way he wants to: he quits his job, starts smoking pot, and begins working out in a persistent hope to impress Angela.

The start of the movie is rather rocky; for every subversively impressive bit (like Lester’s opening narration in the shower), there’s a scene that is vague, undercooked, and goes on for entirely too long (like Lester’s first encounter with Angela). More damaging, though, is the lack of strong dramatic contours: whatever you might think of a ludicrous hypnosis scene in Office Space, at least it provided a sorely needed plot point and a character cusp. There’s no such moment in American Beauty; things just happen, and there’s very little tonal difference in cinematic language to propel the story along. It’s also painfully obvious: for example, the teenage temptress’s last name is Haze -- as in Lolita Haze.

Kevin Spacey, giving yet another brilliant performance, is the best thing about the film. I’m looking forward to cheer him on when Oscars are announced, because I’m sure he’ll get nominated. This nomination will surely be in the wrong category, not that this will be a first for him: Spacey won his first Oscar as a supporting actor, while his part in The Usual Suspects was clearly a lead. Here, vice versa, he’s certain to be nominated as a lead actor, although his part is disappointingly small. Never mind, though; this is a great performance, and what’s great about his performance is his amazing versatility: Lester is hilarious and dead serious at the same time, simultaneously a comic and tragic figure.

The film loses Spacey’s character somewhere in the middle, however. He appears every now and then, but he stops being the focus of the narrative. Instead, the story starts to get bloated and dissipates in all directions. Entirely too much attention is spent on Carolyn dealing with her work as a real-estate agent and Jane dealing with her painful lack of self security.

Both Carolyn and Jane appear as lazily drawn caricatures who don’t behave believably. Here’s a simple quiz for you. Imagine you’re a teen female, and a guy moves in next door. Very soon, you notice he’s stalking you: spying under the cover of darkness and filming you with a hand-held camcorder. Soon, you learn that he was just released from a mental institution and that he likes to film dead pigeons for fun. In addition, you learn that he’s a professional drug dealer. The question is, what do you do? If you (a) try to keep away from him, then you lose -- you’re merely a human being. If, on the other hand, you (b) go and sleep with him, then you win -- you are a character in a Hollywood film!

American Beauty’s tortured metaphors and plot twists fail to give substance to these poorly developed characters, but instead end up pointlessly morphing one caricature into another. Even worse, almost every plot thread is a red herring intended to distract the viewer from the fact that nothing much is going on.

The acting in the film is also poor. Other than Kevin Spacey and an occasional flash of fire from Mena Suvari, it’s simply painful to watch the actors. Thora Birch ends up being a poor person’s Christina Ricci; Wes Bentley as the weirdo next door and Chris Cooper as his father are sullen; and Annette Bening is even worse. Bening is a great actress; she has such an amazing gift of mimicry that it’s frequently hard to even recognize her. This is also the case here: she delves into Carolyn Burnham with complete commitment and concentration. But the thing is, her character is intensely annoying; therefore, each second she was on screen, I felt like I was listening to the loud sound of fingernails screeching on the blackboard.

All of these problems make American Beauty even worse than it sounds. This movie is precisely about looking underneath the surfaces to discover inner beauty. Unfortunately, this is accomplished with such a stunning lack of subtlety that it’s shockingly disconcerting. Nothing annoys me quite as much as the condescending attitude on the part of filmmakers -- and it’s present in spades in American Beauty.

For all its ambitions, when it works, it does so only on the immediate level (excepting Spacey’s great performance). This is a movie which wants to talk about inner beauty -- and accomplishes it by the means of being insultingly obvious and forced, and by giving both teen actresses topless scenes. So we have this: a high-minded philosophical-wannabe movie, which succeeds only as a mediocre softcore flick.