American Beauty

dir. sam mendes
wri. alan ball
st. kevin spacey, annette bening, peter gallagher

Consider cinema a receptacle of general civil unrest and movies like this as tokens that appear on the commercial highway every five years to summarise a half-decade's worth of semi-underground discontent. American Beauty is one of these summations, and its a good one, but that doesn't make it anymore original or insightful. The Great American Dream has taken quite a battering in these last few years, with the suburbs being a favourite target, and American Beauty is the final collection of those grumbles and pokes at that shiny facade. When Annette Bening starts to tear at that empty heart of suburbia, you know that a subversive opinion is now one you can play after the news and not upset the good, grey and respectable. Last night while watching cable I heard that this is Bill Clinton's favourite film of the year. What the fuck? Once something which supposedly screams to break out of acceptable shackles is reined in by the blandest of the bland Academy Award tosspots you have to wonder what this humble little world is coming to.
"Hey, you heard that one about the crushing blandness of the suburbs?"


"Wanna go watch another shitty piece of corporate whoring?"


Screenwriter Alan Ball once worked as a writer for the mediocre sitcom Cybill, and you can tell. A great deal of the screenplay revolves on those little character revelations that characterize the last five minutes of all good sitcoms, twists and turns that bear a gooey little moral at their centre. The supposed town slut who turns out to be a emotionally frail virgin. The gay son and macho dad repeat. The breakdown at the dinner table. What sustains the film are the performances, and as usual Kevin Spacey does a great job playing an ordinary man pushed beyond his limits. He's done this before, but he's so funny that I didn't care one bit. He's funny in the big, preview-clip scenes, but he's also intensely funny in the little gestures and conversations that take place after he "sees the light". Suddenly the world has opened up to him and he's taking immediate delight in all the details he'd been previously blind to. Just doing bench presses and listening to Dylan is heaven for him. Everything is a trigger to a new sense of joy. That's why his obsession with his daughter's friend never seems sleazy or morbid, just merely cheerfully perverse. Lester is having so much fun that anything will do for an immediate fix. The not-so obscure object of his desire may be the obvious pert cheerleader type, but he elevates her to such a ridiculous level that sex barely seems part of it. It's primary school all over again once you talk to the person, your daydreams will immediately come tumbling down.

So despite the second-hand feel of a lot of the picture and the impending clichés that await such rudimentary conclusions, I liked the film a lot. It made me happy in a very appealing way, and I understand why a lot of people are raving about the movie and speaking about it in such elevated and/or ebullient tones. It embraces diversity and irresponsibility in a very primary way, and a lot of people right now no doubt need this kind of reassurance. I'm not being patronising when I talk about the movie as if it were an artier version of Prozac or day-time television. I'd rather people were elevated by American Beauty than by any other piece of button-pushing feelgood tripe. It probably even deserves all the Oscars it'll get when that loathsome night comes around.

adam rivett
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