Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) in American Beauty is a big zero with a boring desk job whose highlight of the day is masturbating in the shower. Then he goes through a life change and is supposedly reborn. I say “supposedly” because the new Lester, apart from being more buff and gruff and wide-eyed, isn’t a big improvement on the old Lester – he’s zero and a half. This is not, however, how we are meant to respond to him: American Beauty is a movie in which not only Lester but practically all the other characters are designed to confound our preconceptions and unfold their secret selves. In most cases, though, this two-step agenda comes across as simply one kind of shallowness giving way to another.
The tag line to the film’s title is “Look closer,” and we’re pressed by Sam Mendes, the celebrated theater director (Cabaret, The Blue Room) making his movie-directing debut, and his screenwriter Alan Ball, a TV-comedy writer who was co-executive producer of Cybill, to look closer at the archetypes of Anytown Americana. Lester’s real-estate-agent wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), for example, with her pasted-on smiles and cast-iron coif, has the veneer of a perfect suburban wifey-wife, but she holds Lester in deep contempt. So does their teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), who undergoes a transformation of her own when she falls for Ricky (Wes Bentley), the mental-case video-voyeur classmate next door, who, of course, turns out to be not so much nuts as “mad” – the way romantic poets are mad. He sees beauty where you would least expect to find it, and that’s what American Beauty wants to do, too.
But why should we trust this simplistic film’s notions of the ineffable? Mendes has been quoted in the New York Times as saying that American Beauty “sounds like some dreadful sitcom on speed,” adding that “it’s not that at all. It’s so filled with loneliness and beneath the surface it’s very funny.” The sitcom connection is apt, though – and, by now, overfamiliar. The Truman Show and Pleasantville have already raked over much of this turf, and some of us didn’t buy it then either. These movies express outrage that the Ozzie-and-Harriet lives we never really believed in anyway are false. Maybe some sort of Hollywood-boomer midlife crisis explains why we’re now getting all these films in a row. Moviemakers who feel betrayed by the cheery sitcoms of their adolescence can now take it out on all the rest of us and, as a bonus, get points for profundity too.
There’s something else afoot in American Beauty. Lester is not only the anti-Ozzie Nelson, he’s also a counterculture washout who smoked dope and partied in the sixties and now has nothing to show for it. Why should we care about him? What ideals did he leave behind? We’re never really told. The filmmakers apparently don’t feel the need to fill out Lester’s character; it’s as if he were fated to become a drone by the country’s straitjacket culture. Carolyn is also a casualty of the culture. She says that “my job is selling an image, and part of my job is living that image,” but real life keeps getting in the way. When she can’t sell a house, she goes into a screaming fit, bawling and slapping herself and smearing her makeup. She’s in awe of the local real-estate king (Peter Gallagher), who has florid, soap-opera good looks and seduces her with his success talk. Their roll in the hay emboldens her, giving credence to the enlightened notion that all she needed was to get laid.
Unlike Lester or Jane, Carolyn is never really brought into the realm of our sympathy; she’s a façade selling façades. When Lester, swigging a beer, tries to get amorous with her and calls upon their fun-loving past, she warms a bit and then pushes him away, fearing the beer will spill onto her expensive couch. We’re supposed to understand, of course, that what Carolyn really fears is closeness, but she’s too villainized in our eyes for that to sink in. Although both actors pull out the stops – Spacey alternates fey snideness with moist wistfulness while Bening does a contortionist’s number on her smile muscles – there is hardly anything in either of their performances to indicate even a faded blush of marital longing.
The filmmakers want us to know that we can’t choose what will liberate us; we have to be prepared for transcendence to come from the unlikeliest sources – like, for example, from the weirdo Ricky, whose video of a white plastic bag swirling around in the wind he describes to a rapt Jane as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed.” Because of the prominence Mendes gives this clip, we’re supposed to agree. Ricky, who deals dope to fund his video habit, is the son of a brutally repressive Marine ex-colonel (Chris Cooper) – is there any other kind? – and a catatonic mother (the wonderful Allison Janney, underused), and so, in the best sentimental juvenile-delinquent tradition, his troubles are bought off, justified. Ricky the new-style hippie is balanced out by the rejuvenated, superannuated hippie Lester, who buys the kid’s weed, drops out of the rat race, and finds his own measure of transcendence in the person of a stuck-up cheerleader pal of Jane’s, Angela (Mena Suvari), whom he repeatedly fantasizes festooned in rose petals. In these moments he gets a lulling look of complete repose; he looks postcoital without ever having had the coitus.
It’s difficult for us to know how to take Lester’s rebirth: His yearning for his daughter’s friend has incestuous overtones that are never developed; and in a movie about the tyranny of façades, it doesn’t help Lester’s credibility that, long before he gets to really know her, he’s enamored by Angela’s all-American, blonde-haired, blue-eyed cheerleader looks. Because this middle-aged guy is so dimensionless, his supposed entrancement comes across more like plain old chickie lust. Angela looks like every Hollywood movie producer’s second wife.
American Beauty plugs into a widespread boomer paranoia that, like Rip Van Winkle Lester here, we’ve wasted away our past twenty years in a kind of coma and now it’s too late to change. What gives the movie its air of seriousness is the attempt to spiritualize this emptiness; Mendes really loves his floating plastic bags and rose petals. The film is like a sportier, homegrown version of all those Antonioni-ish movies about the depleted upper-middle classes zombified by regret. It flatters its audience by turning burnout and midlife itch into tragic states, but a zero in torment is still a zero.