Friday, 23 July 2021

American Beauty (1999)

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening excel in the dated Best Picture winner American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Chris Cooper (Colonel Frank Fitts), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts)

Time has not been kind to American Beauty – and I’m not just talking about Kevin Spacey. In 1999, what felt like a timely exploration of male-angst has, over time, looked less prescient and more like the last embers of a generation that thought they were The Graduate’s Benjamin but actually became his parents. Many of the sympathies of American Beauty now feel dated and slightly misguided, or obscure some genuine reflections on its characters. Its satire of consumerism feels trapped in the 90s. But it’s also very skilfully made, often funny, beautifully shot and you can see why it seemed like the next landmark masterpiece of American cinema, an Apartment for the modern age.

In suburbia, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged, middle-ranking magazine executive, tired of his life, unhappy in his marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening), a fiercely ambitious real estate agent, and drifting away from daughter Jane (Thora Birch). He is snapped out of his ennui by his infatuation with Jane’s friend and fellow-cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari). Next thing we know, Lester realises he hates his life, quits his job (blackmailing his boss on the way), buys the car of his dreams and takes a job flipping burgers – to the bewildered frustration of Carolyn, who starts an affair. Meanwhile Jane becomes intrigued by Ricky (Wes Bentley), the film-obsessed and drug-dealing son of their next-door neighbour, homophobic army colonel Frank (Chris Cooper). Oh, and it’s all narrated from beyond the grave by Lester – so we know it won’t end well.

“There is nothing worse than being ordinary” says Ricky at one point. It’s an attitude that underlies the film. American Beauty has that very showbiz attitude that the lives most ordinary people lead must be rather shallow and empty. That there can be no meaning in the life of suburbia, family and 9-to-5 that so many of us lead. A sharper film would have added depth and contrast to this – but American Beauty is a film that, for all its quality, is also very pleased with itself.

American Beauty’s debt to Billy Wilder is central to its DNA. It plays often as a mix of The Apartment and Sunset Boulevard, with Spacey skilfully channelling a twist of Lemmon as Burnham. Saying that, I can’t believe Wilder would have been as easy on Lester as Ball and Mendes are. Surely Wilder would have seen through the self-serving selfishness and sad delusion that underlie Burnham’s mid-life crisis, fuelled by his fears of emasculation.

It’s that fear running through American Beauty and – for all it looks at first like a satire on suburbia – what came out to me on rewatching is that parallel narrative of two men suffering familiar masculine crises. Burnham, the office drone, ignored at work, playing second fiddle to his wife at home. He doesn’t wear the pants anywhere – his wife chooses the music they listen to, the events they go to, she doesn’t even let him drive the car. Teenage dreams of rebelling disappeared. He’s forgotten what it feels like to be a man. Then there’s Colonel Fitts, the man’s man struggling with self-loathing due to his deeply repressed homosexuality. These are fairly conventional stories.

Lester’s story takes centre stage (even the name Lester Burnham is wimpy). Outstandingly played by Kevin Spacey, who was never better or more humane, Burnham is endearing, rather sweet, clutzy but still has that sharp-tongued Spacey sense of wit. The opening sequences perfectly capture Burnham’s Jack-Lemmonish awkwardness, repression, inadequacy and depression. But  if anything, Spacey is almost too sympathetic in the role, masking the selfishness and self-serving nature of Burnham’s mid-life crisis (which is what it is), urging us to celebrate his rules-bucking independence.  The film never gets to grips with the spark for all this being a sexual obsession with a teenage girl.

American Beauty never questions the sleazy corruption of Lester’s fantasy – and is perfectly happy with using his crush as a positive motivation for getting his mojo back, as well as frequently presenting Angela as a Lolita-esque fantasy. He holds back from sex with her when she confesses she is a virgin – but the film offers no “what am I doing” epiphany from Lester (or a realisation that he is about to sleep with someone literally young enough to be his daughter), instead turning this exploitative moment into an expression of some decency in Lester. Sure, it’s great that Lester realises his responsibilities eventually – but even in 1999, we all knew it was wrong for middle aged men to sleep with impressionable school-children.

The fact is that Election, released the year before, had more to say about exactly the sort of underperforming, thinks-of-himself-as-a-failure resentment of men of Burnham’s ilk – the difference being that Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister in that film is exposed as a bitter self-serving fantasist, which is what Burnham really is. Burnham’s dying moments may be full of reflections on his wife and daughter – but he ignores them or treats them with scorn throughout the film.

And there isn’t, I feel, a satirical note to this. Instead, the film roots for Burnham strongly, asking us to admire his late life rebellion. Maybe it’s the conservative in me – maybe it’s because I don’t much like The Graduate either – but I don’t feel it. Spacey is great – but Burnham is selfish and embodies a concern in certain men that career-minded women and suburbia were turning them from hunter-gatherers into hen-pecked losers. American Beauty is a direct development of the masculinity crisis films Michael Douglas specialised in throughout the 80s and 90s, of men lost in a world that isn’t 100% about them and what they want any more.

The film’s parallel plot of Fitt’s homosexuality crisis is even more familiar than Burnham’s and hits many expected bases – there are no real surprises here for anyone who has ever seen a film before. It largely works as it is so outstandingly sold by Chris Cooper, who gives a brilliantly rich and raw performance as Fitts.

But its faint whiff of predictability fits alongside a script that is often very rich on dialogue, but has a vein of pretention to it that makes the film feel it’s striving to be important. Ball’s dialogue too often undermines its own points with the stench of pretension. The teenagers in the film fall into broadly predictable cliché. The arty, dreamy ones are profound; the pretty one is shallow and flighty (although, to be fair, is shown to also be vulnerable and scared). Bentley’s character’s faux-artiste musings on the movements of a plastic bag are exactly the sort of pretentious ramblings Ball would later puncture so effectively with the college art classes in Six Feet Under. These scenes have dated terribly and ache with self-importance (and are ripe for parody).

But there is quality here, don’t get me wrong. Spacey is superb, Cooper brilliant. Annette Bening is pitch-perfect as a career-focused woman who lives her life through self-help mantras but is only just holding it together. It’s a shame that, just like Mrs Robinson, the film is so full of sympathy for its male protagonist that it has no time to empathise fully with its female lead.  Mendes directs with a stunning confidence for a first-timer, drawing brilliant performances from the actors as well as bringing a startling originality to the filming (in partnership with Conrad Hall as photographer).

But American Beauty never turns its “look closer” message on itself. It uncritically examines a particular masculine crisis and often makes points that are witty but simple. The final act becomes weighted down with a tiresome “whodunnit?” mystery. The acting, direction and much of the writing is frequently brilliant. But the film itself, as a whole, has not aged as well as we thought it might.

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