Smug social commentators have mocked the cozy suburban way of life ever since America's middle class fled the cities en masse after World War II.
From The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and The Stepford Wives (1975) to the more recent Edward Scissorhands, Serial Mom, Ice Storm and Pleasantville, a growing archive of movies casts a suspicious eye on green-lawned neighborhoods and subdivisions, and finds them only superficially safe and sane places to live. The critically acclaimed American Beauty is the latest of these self-important specimens. It rips off David Lynch (Blue Velvet) and MTV's animated series Daria to concoct a sharp-edged, surreal satire of the affluent ‘90s, where alienation, intolerance and violence lurk just beneath the well-ordered surface.
Celebrated British theater director Sam Mendes (The Blue Room) and successful TV sitcom writer Alan Ball (Cybill) conjure up visual and verbal razzle-dazzle to pick off some deserving targets. American middle-class society has become, in many ways, the consumer-driven, materialistic culture they depict, and this narcissistic ethos can produce the kind of admiration for status and physical beauty which blots out all human connections that aren't in harmony with those goals. But the film-makers'vision is too one-sided and hollow, saying almost nothing about the subject that hasn't been dramatized better before.
To its credit, American Beauty is a skillful mixture of different stories and tones. It's both a suburban dad's midlife crisis and the coming-of-age of three mixed-up teens. The filmmakers shift gears between black comedy and moody character analysis without missing a beat.
The movie is narrated by its central protagonist, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). “I'm 42 years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead,” he begins, putting an element of suspense under the events that follow. “Of course, I don't know that. In a way, I'm dead already,” he adds, describing the depressed state of his psyche.
His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and 16-year-old daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), consider him “this gigantic loser.” The unhappy family no longer communicates with one another and suppresses their anger and secret desires behind a facade of well-rehearsed conformity.
Lester's fed up with his job as a reporter at an advertising-industry trade paper and feels guilty about his deteriorating relationship with his daughter. Carolyn is a hard-charging real estate broker who places career before family. Jane, who never smiles, sees through her parents and longs to get away.
The movie then shows its main characters falling into several kinds of degradation.
Hoping to reconnect with their daughter, Lester and Carolyn attend a high-school basketball game where Jane is a Dancing Spartanette. Lester spots her blonde fellow-cheerleader, Angela (Mena Suvari), and loses himself to lustful thoughts. The experience changes his life. He begins doing bench-presses in the garage and standing up to his family at dinner in hopes of being worthy of her.
In working out this obsession, Lester recaptures some of the passion and idealism of his youth. His daughter is disgusted, finding his lust embarrassing and “pathetic.” But the underage Angela encourages him.
Carolyn is too absorbed in her own problems to notice, hiding her insecurities behind a maniacally chipper persona. She seeks release in an affair with a more-successful business rival (Peter Gallagher) and by shooting a handgun at a target range. The movie reveals its hierarchy of values by treating her adultery as less offensive than her enjoyment of firearms.
Suddenly, our perspective on the action shifts, and we're spying on everyone through the lens of a digital camera. The Burnhams' next door neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), is a video freak who's developed a crush on Jane and secretly records her every action. He's also a big-time dope-dealer. Surprisingly, she's not repelled by his voyeurism and returns his affection.
From the filmmakers' politically correct vantage point, Ricky's father is even more twisted than he is. The older man is a retired marine colonel who collects guns, reads The Wall Street Journal and watches old Ronald Reagan movies on TV. He's depicted as verbally and physically abusive toward his son and therefore responsible for his drug-dealing.
Every romantic attachment in the film is obsessive-compulsive except one. The Burnhams' male homosexual neighbors are a well-adjusted couple, the only normal people we meet.
By the movie's end, the filmmakers run out of gas. They have dissected the Burnhams and the Fittses with a cold eye and sick laughter, but they don't know where to go with it. Everything is tied together with a melodramatic piece of violence which the movie tries to pass off as a critique of homophobia and America's gun culture. The narrative's basic framing device — our knowledge that Lester is going to die — is milked for suspense. The resolution offers no surprise or moral enlightenment.
To lighten the film's dark vision, Ricky indulges in some New-Age mysticism. He videotapes the wind blowing a plastic bag back and forth for 15 minutes, perceiving a force larger than himself behind this display of nature's power. “It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world,” he proclaims.
It's a self-centered look at the majesty of creation that demands nothing more than aesthetic appreciation. This, and a kind of self-liberation without redemption or sacrifice, are presented as our only reasons to hope. American Beauty is a prisoner of the same me-first culture it tries to satirize.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.