What's Wrong with This Picture?

I'd been waiting for American Beauty since one day last summer in West Hollywood, when I first saw that now-familiar woman's torso on a billboard dominating the Sunset Strip. The adolescent hand intrigued me, and the single long-stemmed dewy dark-red rose was like an arrow across that torso, with its keyhole-like navel in the shape of a question mark. "Look closer," the promotion suggested, along with the names of the film's two superstars-sophisticated, sexy, contemporary-Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning. By now, of course, the advertising is also able to invite, "Look closer at the best reviewed movie of the year."

And I've come to see American Beauty in that other cultural capital of America, Harvard Square, where it's currently running in two theaters practically every hour on the hour. The full-house audience is clearly engaged, and the movie ends to the applause of hundreds of individuals, a show of approval that is rare for Harvard Square.

Some of my own best friends are enthusiastically admiring the film, especially those who've seen a lot of other movies lately. They rave about the black humor, the edgy cinematography, the critique of American culture's multilayered image making. Teenagers love the foolishness of the adults, and everyone finds the acting Oscar worthy.

Needless to say, the reviewers loved it first. The New Yorker's David Denby has proclaimed it "by far the strongest American film of the year," and he makes a sustained and passionate argument for the picture's "appreciation of the vagrant beauty hidden behind the surfaces." Roger Ebert calls it "one of the strongest and most penetrating films of the year," while Gene Shalit goes one better by judging it "a triumph . . . it ranks with the finest movies of the '90s."

So, as Paul Simon sings, "Who am I to blow against the wind?"

But it's odd for American Beauty even to rank as a film of the '90s, when it so powerfully evokes the past 50 years without seeming to have evolved along the way. Early on, when Ricky (the boy-next-door drug dealer) informs Lester Burnham (his girlfriend's father) that first-rate-"no paranoia"-marijuana goes for $2,000 these days, Lester notes cheerfully that "things have changed since 1973." But, no, the problem in this movie is that things really haven't changed since 1973, and not since 1953 either, judging by Lester's Esquire-throwback sexual fantasies of the doll-like cheerleader floating in deep-red velvet rose petals. These strike me as unsophisticated, unsexy, uncomtemporary. Am I the only one who is uncharmed?

This picture reminds me of the '70s equal-opportunity jokes about how many whatevers it takes to screw in a light bulb, specifically the one about how many feminists it takes. Naturally, the punch line-"That's not funny"-was to prove that, as usual, feminists ruin all the fun. But the reason I am reminded of these jokes is that in American Beauty there's full equal-opportunity offense. Everyone, not just the women, is reduced to mere caricature.

That is, you could be a colonel in the Marines and ask when that Great Santini sadistic child-berating brute stereotype will ever be decommissioned. Or you could be a homosexual and worry that your options are still to be either a cute little Bobbsey Twin or a raving maniac. You could be Lester's wife, Carolyn Burnham, and wonder whether you'll ever stop being blamed for your husband's puerile, plagiarized fantasies: a blonde girl and a red sports car, neither of which makes it out of the driveway. More destructive yet, you could be any one of the three teenagers in this movie who-so what else is new?-always succeed in frightening the hell out of the grown-ups, who then use that as an excuse for parental failings. You could be, even, Our Hero, and feel sorry for yourself because of what you've been made out to be.

Yes, for sure, Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning bring an absorbing and winning cleverness and heart to their roles, but what if their characters had actually been imagined in a way that had made them true to life? If characterization-as opposed to caricature-were a value in this film, Carolyn would have, for instance, no pistol, whose sole function, to move the plot, is to fool you into pretending she'll use it, even though, because of that other cliché (the self-hating closet killer whose fate is sealed with a kiss), "who done it" couldn't be more obvious. And this is a movie being hailed as a masterpiece of irony?

For irony to be irony, a thing must be transformed-tilted, pivoted, reversed-into, it is to be hoped, something fresher. So, for instance, how about-for a change-a film where it's the guy who gets fed up with being controlled by others, and decides to take his life into his own hands? "It's never too late to take it back," Lester deadpans, mocking, by imitating, every woman who ever claimed such freedom. Interesting idea? Absolutely. But then why not make it matter by letting it seem real?

"Welcome to America's Weirdest Home Videos," says Ricky, the film's teenage kinky videographer, but in fact it's the very banality of his vision that impresses. Except for the fact that it is the plainer Jane he sees as beautiful, rather than Lester's more predictable ideal, his digitized images are as flat and derivative as the dialogue: "I refuse to be a victim," complains Lester, and "I'm sick and tired of your treating me like I don't exist," "like I'm this gigantic loser." Well?

"Please pass the asparagus," Lester is forced to ask a few times, until finally, fed up with being ignored, he walks around the table, gets the plate himself, and throws it against the wall, saying menacingly, "Don't in-ter-rupt me, hon-ey." In particular he accuses Carolyn, "You haven't spoken to me for months." But his real criticism of his wife? "You're so . . . joyless."

Not so. As a real-estate agent, Carolyn may not sell any houses, but-remember that '70s mega-hit book The Joy of Sex, which came into our '60s-primed world as a culturally sanctioned sex manual?-with Carolyn's Barbie-doll legs flung up against the headboard as her hero "the real-estate king" gives her his "royal" treatment ("Who's king?" "You are! You are!"), she at least temporarily gets the release, and relief, of an actual connection. Still, however, because American Beauty is both the land of opposites and of utter predictability, it is all too clear that this king will reveal himself to be a coward, enabling the meek Lester to crown himself king-"I rule!"-for winning at the movie's shamelessly contrived gotcha setup. And yet, still, the crowd loves it.

What's worrisome about the power of glorified throwbacks like these, especially if they are the very reason this movie is so popular, is that they invite the imagination to seek the extreme. Consider in this context, for example, Philip Wylie's sensational (and sensationally successful) 1942 book Gene ration of Vipers, not because the point of view in American Beauty parallels Wylie's berserk theorizing, but because, oddly, this movie doesn't distinguish itself from its influences enough not to bring Vipers to mind. Wylie's rant against the disastrous "megaloid momworship" visited upon his generation of innocent men is hilarious, sort of, precisely because its shrill tone is so, well, hysterical. Whose fault is everything? "Mom got herself out of the nursery and the kitchen. She then got herself out of the house. . . . No longer either hesitant or reverent, . . . the damage she forthwith did to society was so enormous and so rapid that even the best men lost track of things. Mom's first gracious presence at the ballot-box was roughly concomitant with the start toward a new all-time low in political scurviness, hoodlumism, gangsterism, labor strife, monopolistic thuggery, moral degeneration, civic corruption, smuggling, bribery, theft, murder, homosexuality, drunkenness, financial depression, chaos and war. Note that."

And so Lester Burham thinks of himself as "just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose" because he too has already lost everything. "Could he be any more pathetic?" asks his daughter Jane, as she suggests to Ricky-"But you know I'm not serious, right?"-that "someone should put him out of his misery." Jane's complaint against her mid-life dad is sparked by his courting of her friend Angela, who has the benefit, at least, of chronological adolescence. In flight from their overt flirtation, Jane complains with an educated smirk that her father is "doing massive psychological damage" to her. But it is with an all too matter-of-fact hurt that she says, "I need a role model."

Jane's future seems to hold-instead of security provided by her father-an escape to New York with Ricky, whose own father has kicked him out of the house, but who has about $40,000 in drug earnings. However, since we know that at least 10 percent of that amount-it could be more-has come from Lester's own pocket to fund his new "no paranoia" habit, is there not a problem for his audience here at least? Or, if perhaps the filmmaker does intend this to be a cautionary moment-think parental narcissism and maybe a new '90s form of "laundering" parental responsibility-what could possibly then justify the movie's uplift ending?

It is fair to assume the film finds no such problem because Lester says as much. When Angela asks him, "How are you?" he answers, "It's been a long time since anybody asked me that. I'm great." Alone for a moment then and, seemingly, a bit sadder but wiser, he studies a framed photo of himself with Carolyn and their Jane as a little girl, on an amusement park ride, all three of them with exhilarated panicky grins. And he says? "Man-oh-man. Man-oh-man, oh-man."

And from there, after the messy interruption of his actual death, which had been foretold by the voice-over in the movie's opening shots (as by all that liquid red imagery), we return to the disembodied voice, which manages, after all, to have found in his life "so much" beauty. The beauty is in all the most obvious places, we are to learn, such as a sky full of falling stars and yellow maple leaves-also falling-and the aged, papery skin of a grandmother's hands. And-at last, yes, too late-"and Janie." And finally, he's willing to admit, even Carolyn. In waking up to enjoy his mid-life diversions of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, he has said, "I feel like I've been in a coma for 20 years." But isn't he still?

Is the power of the film, then, in its ability-by means of brilliant performances and consistently idiosyncratic image making-to distract from its very content? And is this, finally, what characterizes-or, rather, caricatures-the '90s? Other films over the past 20 years have taken up the darkness at the core of suburban family life, illuminating the consequences born of that scary rigid Mom made famous in all her fury by Philip Wylie. There is the honest and truly ironic Welcome to the Dollhouse, the brittle but fluid Ice Storm, and Ordinary People, whose subject is the revelation of character-which, like the score (the melody of Pachelbel's Canon in D)-evolves in minute and illuminating variation. There is compelling surface beauty in each of these other films too, but unlike in American Beauty, there is a human beauty that isn't only skin deep.

In American Beauty, a small, empty white plastic bag appears, at first, as the aimless, random subject of Ricky's favorite video-twirling and diving in a restless wind on a day just before it will snow-and again at the end of the movie as the filmmaker's own signature. This is a symbolic argument against the value of "structure and discipline," which has been exposed in American Beauty as cruel at worst (in the character of Ricky's sadistic Marine father) or at best (mocked by the kids) as irrelevant. But what of the structure and discipline necessary to family life? To meaningful work? To all fully realized art?

To me, the "beautiful" plastic bag is a dispiriting image-so literally without grounding or purpose, just somebody else's trash, a weightless object manipulated by a breeze into what passes for acrobatics-but it represents all the more heartbreaking a belief: that in America in 1999, this is as beautiful as it gets.



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