Beautifully Shot, Horrible Messaging

American Beauty

Here is a film I have avoided reviewing for quite some time. It used to rank highly on my list of films way back (14 years ago I put it in my Top 10) but over the years the film has fallen in my favor substantially. This is not just because Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a disgusting person in all regards (although certainly that has ruined a number of his films for me), but also because the more times I watched the film the more I got that same sense that the morals of the movie are just… not good. It’s a film that absolutely has not aged well in any regard.

Thing is, I’m not the only person to have their feelings on the movie change over time. It was the second best reviewed film of 1999, the ninth highest grossing of that year, and it won five academy awards the year it was eligible (including a nod for Spacey). Hell, in my college script writing class (circa 2002) we read the script for this film and debated it (and no one in the class raised the very fucked sexual messages of the movie). It was a film that was almost universally praised at the time (and even those reviewers that didn’t like it overall still found much about the production to praise). But the years have not been kind to American Beauty, and when you go back to the film you can see why.

It’s a movie about a man, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who has a midlife crisis. He hates his job, his marriage, and his life. He likely would head to his grave in a soulless existence that he couldn’t change if something didn’t break for him. But when it does he quits his job (after blackmailing his boss, something the film does call him out over), works on his body, reevaluates his relationships, and tries to be a different person, the person he always wanted to be. And just when he finally finds that moment of happiness that makes him feel complete, he dies. There’s something poetic about that… if you ignore every scene in the film in the process.

It’s clear from the start that Lester is unhappy. Hell, he says as much as he jerks off in the shower at the start of the film (which is a sad moment for him, and us, as we’re stuck watching it for a few seconds). He needs something to kick him into gear, and that would be admirable if what changes his life weren’t a high school girl (who may, in fact, be underage even if the film never tells us as much). His daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is in the school’s dance troupe and she has a friend from that troupe, Angela (Mina Suvari), that immediately becomes the focus of Lester’s infatuation. He starts fantasizing about her all the time, especially thinking about how she’d look naked. This comes up a lot in the film.

Now sure, yes, once he finally gets the object of his desire he decides that actually going through with it isn’t a good idea. She admits she’s never been with a guy before, he realizes how young she is, and then he helps her get dressed while he goes off to contemplate his life. That doesn’t really absolve him, though. If she had been experienced in sex (instead of just lying about it the whole movie) would he then have had his moment of self-reflection? Should that have mattered, really? She’d still (possibly) be an underage girl regardless of whether she’d been with boys before, and Lester, being a (gross) middle-aged man, still shouldn’t have been lusting after her. Hell, even if she were 18, the age gap between them is huge. She’s not experienced in life regardless, and Lester is gross for lusting after her, no matter her sexual experience level. This is not a message the movie delivers on properly.

Hell, it doesn’t seem to think that lusting after high school girls (seniors or not, technically legal or not) is such a bad thing. This wasn’t something I picked up on when the film came out as I, myself, was a senior in high school at the time, just getting ready to go off to college. But when I’ve gone back and watched the film again with a few years distance I was creeped out by how much the film likes to show off its young, female leads. Thora Birch was only 17 when the film came out (and only 16 when she filmed the movie) but she has a nude scene. Mena Suvari’s character has multiple nude scenes (one of which actually shows her nude and not conveniently covered by rose petals) and we have to assume her character is the same age as Birch’s Jane. Maybe they’re supposed to be seniors in the film, but considering the fact that neither of them drive in the movie, I have my doubts. And the fact that it’s only the high school girls themselves that comment on it makes it seem like the film knows it should be wrong, but is okay with society thinking otherwise.

Lester, of course, doesn’t directly face repercussions for this, or practically any of his actions. Remember that he blackmails his boss early in the film in a scene that is played as an act of triumph (he gets a severance package out of the deal). He says that he’d accuse the man of trying to get Lester to blow him, which speaks both of homophobia and Lester’s gross sexual politics (and, in the film it works). He lusts after Angela but his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) never seems to notice or care (she’s off having sex with someone else). Her only issue with Lester is that he “lost his job” (which isn’t exactly what happened). She’s so caught up in her own shit she doesn’t even realize Lester is spiraling, but hey, who cares when Lester is having so much fun?

The only time Lester suffers for anything is when he finally dies, and arguably this isn’t even his fault. His neighbor, Frank (Chris Cooper) is a retired Marines Colonel, a super-repressed homosexual, and also kind of a Nazi (he has a single Nazi plate in his collection, which you don’t do unless you kind of agree with the Nazis at least a little). When Frank thinks that Lester is in a gay relationship with Frank’s son, Rickey (Wes Bentley), he then approaches Lester and comes on to him. Lester rejects the man, as kindly as he can, but this forces Frank to decide to kill Lester to cover up the shame that someone knows he’s gay. So it’s a homosexual man who kills Lester, because repression? Don’t be gay? I’m not really certain what the message is really supposed to be but it doesn’t play well now, 25 years later. Not at all.

This is not to say there are no redeeming qualities to the film; not everything about the movie is bad and, in fact, some of it is quite good. Bening is wonderful as Carolyn, absolutely into the part and bringing all her charisma and life to the role of a woman who, because of the actions of her husband (not all of which she’s even realized) goes off on her own bit of a midlife crisis. Bening was up for an Oscar for her role here, and while she lost the race, you can see why she was nominated as she’s fantastic. Frankly I would have rather had her get the award than Spacey, but it is what it is.

The cinematography is also amazing in this film. Cinematographer Conrad Hall absolutely made the movie a work of art, creating breathtaking scenes everywhere he could. He had a way of staging his shots and capturing light that made moments feel like paintings. A shot of Carolyn standing in the rain at the end of the film is transcendent. Lester, dead in a pool of his own blood, looks artistic. Hell, the man made a bag floating around in the air look artsy (even if that was a scene that was later mocked by Not Another Teen Movie, and rightly so, for being weird, stuck up, and stupid). He had an eye, and he would go on to then shoot the shit out of Road to Perdition along with American Beauty director Sam Mendes (and that is a film that is glorious to watch), his last work before he died.

The construction of, and performances in, American Beauty show the care the movie took to make. I don’t hate any of the performances (as gross as Lester is, Spacey was the perfect man to play him as he, too, is a gross, lecherous person). The film itself, though, is hard to sit through now. What might have seemed okay back in 1999 (at least to me, as someone close to the age of the younger characters in this film – I can’t speak for the older people at the time that thought this film was okay) certainly doesn’t feel right now, and Spacey’s own issues have cast quite the pall over this film. It was celebrated at the time but barely discussed 25 years later because, well, I think we’d all like to forget this movie exists.

But it does exist, and we all liked it at the time (well, most of us anyway). Were we right back then? Maybe yes, but also now. Are we right to hate it now? Absolutely. People are allowed to change their opinions on media, especially as they grow and evolve and become more complete people. American Beauty was once a pretty good film; now it’s not and it’s good to go back and look at it to realize why.