In my last review, the one about Sleepaway Camp, I stated that Paul was a good guy. After receiving a digital metric tonne of hate mail about this, I have come to the realization that Paul is actually an awful human being that perpetuates rape culture. He probably deserved his beheading, and is largely the reason Angela reacts how she does at the end. Please forgive me….
Now, onwards and upwards to the review.
American Beauty is a film that I have not seen in a long while. Thanks to the power of Netflix we are able to enjoy this classic American Lolita film (no, not the one with Peter Sellers). My first question going into the film was whether or not it would hold up over time. The movie came out in 1999, competing with such juggernauts as Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix, Star Wars Episode I, Toy Story 2, Eyes Wide Shut, The Green Mile, American Pie, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Magnolia, Office Space, AND MORE. Jesus Christ, I didn’t realize that 1999 was the best year for movies. I may just review these movies during my good weeks, and create a 16 years later best of 1999 list… (Any good reviewer does end of the year best and worst of lists)
American Beauty, being just one of the great films to come out that year, has definitely aged far more than others. Despite not being very heavy on things like CGI, something about the world of the film just feels ancient compared to the modern society we live in. Maybe its the music, maybe its the cars and technology in the film, maybe its the way society seems to be set up. But it just “feels” 90s, which isn’t bad. It did win the Oscar for best picture. Though I am coming away from 1999 feeling as though some other films were a bit underrated…
The profound statements that left a younger me pausing the film the reflect on what I am watching, now just leave me looking at the film as though it is trying too hard. That is not to say that the film does not touch on some serious issues. I am also not saying that the problems and dilemmas aren’t present still today. It is just that a movie that at the time felt like so much more has become a largely shallow experience that leaves me wanting. I will elaborate on this more later, however.
This was Sam Mendes’ first feature film as director. He went on to make Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall, and Spectre. I have not seen all of these films, but I would say that I have had similar feelings about them. I would also say that this is the best film I have seen from Mendes, though I will probably see Road to Perdition in the future. He won the Oscar for best director for American Beauty, which is unfortunate since I felt the film could use some….um…direction.
The cast of American Beauty is arguably a strength. Lester is played by Kevin Spacey at his peak, following The Usual Suspects and LA Confidential. They needed two girls who looked young to play the parts of the daughter, Jane, and the Lolita, Angela, and I feel they succeeded. The mother, Carolyn, is very well performed in my opinion. The only other role I have seen Annette Benning in is in The Kids Are All Right, which I do recommend (it also stars Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo). The awkward boy next door (no, not that Boy Next Door) Ricky is well performed by the guy who dies on the water planet in Interstellar. However, by the end of the movie I just don’t see the same level of performance as the beginning. Especially in the last act where Ricky convinces Jane to leave with him, and tells Angela that she is a vapid ordinary person. It just seems so…unconvincing.
It sounds like I am being harsh to American Beauty, and to an extent I am. Call me a fanboy, but I just don’t see how this movie beat out others in 1999 in certain categories. There are good things about the movie, such as the music. While I complain about the piano that is played throughout the film which now just gets on my nerves to hear, I do like the other songs chosen to represent the feeling our characters have. Bali Hai is an excellent piece to use, since it describes a destination in which we can see but never reach. There are other uses of music to describe a character’s mood, but this is the best example.
Now I will discuss probably the best part about this movie, which are those sensual imagination sequences. As with The Big Lebowski which had tremendous trippy scenes to break up the ordinariness of the story, American Beauty follows suit with several scenes that make you uncomfortable to watch. Visually they are still stunning, as the rose petals fly, fall, and float with a stark contrast to the pale white skin of our Lolita. The bath scene specifically stands out as the music and dialogue play off each other, creating a sequence which titillates the senses.
Unfortunately, I feel as though this scene is the climax of the film, and is about halfway into it. This leaves us with a long and directionless falling action that supposedly builds to the real climax, the shooting, but I’m not buying it. My attention and focus on the film peaked in that bath tub. The fact that the last 30 minutes feels like an eternity is a big problem I have with the film.
To elaborate more on the direction of the film. Directing a film is hard, especially one that is so artful and symbolic as this one. You can run into several problems, such as the symbolism being either too vague or too blunt. There might be too much art and not enough substance. There might be too many themes competing with one another, and at the end you feel as though you missed something. This movie succumbs to some of these problems. Which definitely doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it leaves me wondering if people think American Beauty is deep just because they want it to be…or because it really is.
There are many themes in the movie. The rose petals symbolize something for Lester, either beauty or the fleeting nature of life, or something. Meanwhile Roses symbolize something else for the wife, Carolyn. They mean normalcy or fulfillment or the life she wants to project to the world, or the outward projection of beauty but inward it is decaying. Now, it is definitely fine that things have different meanings for different characters, but at times the movie makes me question if it is about Lester or about the family. To be honest, I think the movie would be most interesting from the perspective of Ricky. The confusion about who is the focus of the movie is irritating at times, to me, and is why I feel the climax was the bathtub scene. It is not as though Lester is absent for much of the second half of the film, but his role is diminished in favor of developing the romance between Ricky and Jane, as well as between Carolyn and The King.
I can’t nail down one thing that this movie is about, or I suppose its thesis if I am to get academic. I can look at Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, and Office Space as incorporating similar thematic elements as American Beauty…but being far more focused on those themes. Magnolia is a story that ultimately is about abuse, Office Space is about the mundanity of modern society, Malkovich is about the nature of self and personal identity. These are all issues that were at the forefront of the American collective psyche in the late 90s, clearly. American Beauty tries to be all of these and more, and that is where it fails. There are only two scenes in which Lester is in his office, and I feel as though it is trying to take a harsh “stick it to the man” concept, Office Space does this better, as just one example.
I haven’t even discussed that infamous bag scene which makes me want to puke. The whimsy of a bag floating in the wind sounds deep, maybe it was in 1999, but lets come back to reality. Beauty is subjective, and if that is the point of the movie then it is accomplished in this one home video and we can just go home. Ricky definitely has unique tastes, but that doesn’t make his vaguely philosophical statements any more valid. Other characters feel the need to share their unique philosophical views at times as well. If we are supposed to think that Angela is “deep” because she says “whatever is meant to be, will happen eventually” when talking about her future as a model, it failed with me. If we were supposed to further understand that she is a person without valuable insight, then it left me confused. I felt as though the scene was meant to try and establish her relative maturity to the other girls her age.
This movie discusses the sensitive subject matter of gay acceptance in upper-middle class american culture in 1999. Perhaps this is what dates this movie so much, as a lot has changed socially between then and now. On the other hand, one could argue that the Orlando massacre is reminiscent of the ideas presented in this movie, and what drove Ricky’s dad to kill Lester after struggling with his own homosexuality while also hating homosexuality. This is a problem which persists in any culture which is homophobic or bigoted towards gay people. The father abuses his son just because he thinks he might be gay, though there is lots of evidence out of context which would point to that conclusion. (see picture below) But he is also hostile, in private, to the gay couple which lives in the neighborhood. You first see him wrestling with this early on, when his son tries to win his father’s approval by expressing bigoted attitudes towards gay people. Later he tries to open up to Lester, unfortunately for him Lester is not gay. Ricky’s dad responds in shame and embarrassment by shooting him in the head at the end of the movie.
Well, I didn’t expect this going in. I feel as though several films and directors were robbed for not being winning or being nominated for several Academy Awards that year. This movie did not age well, aesthetically or conceptually. Once I get past the artistic elements of the film, and start listening to the messages, I find that it is rather shallow. With better direction this film could have been more focused on one or two themes, rather than trying to be a catch-all for middle America in 1999. The saving grace is Kevin Spacey who makes this role his own, and flies above the rest.
73/100. Maybe in 1999 this movie was what the country needed. But in 2016 I can’t help but think it just doesn’t do anything particularly well, outside of having a good focus on cinematography and artistic elements in the lucid sequences. It is definitely not a bad film, but just overrated. Would I like to watch this movie again? No.
This was Kevin Spacey’s last major role until House of Cards in 2013. I’m not counting Recount in 2008, but he was good in that too.
Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps 2014 show was inspired by the ending soliloquy by Kevin Spacey, and their 2015 show was inspired by the end credits song Because.
This movie was indeed inspired by a floating bag in the wind. I can’t say i’m surprised….
Jane was 17 during the shooting of the film, she also was Dani in Hocus Pocus…so yeah…
This makes two reviews in a row where two main characters are Ricky and Angela.
Fuck this movie for making me write a review that surpasses 2000 words. I really want to get these things down to about 1000.
Last Week: Sleepaway Camp
Next Week, a 9/11 special: Left Behind (the one with Nic Cage)