Movie Review: American Beauty (1999)

Movie Review: American Beauty (1999)

The biting and finely crafted and acted American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition) is a fantastic film about the modern failure and folly of the American Dream.

Under narration by a character played by Kevin Spacey (Se7en, The Shipping News, The Usual Suspects) in what may be his best performance, the two-hour movie tracks several characters which revolve around three main characters in a single American middle class family.

Spacey’s frustrated husband and father hates his work, his marriage and his life. His wife (Annette Bening, Regarding Henry) is a vacuous real estate agent and their daughter (Thora Birch) is an angry and insecure teenager. Their new next-door neighbors (Chris Cooper and Allison Janney) are also married with an only child (Wes Bentley). American Beauty is exactly as tidy as I’m making it sound.

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American Beauty is more involving than you might think. By tapping the currently predominant cultural trend, nihilism, which Mendes overlays with light strokes of pseudo-romanticism and pretty actors, animation and pictures, he infuses the film with a sense of possibility. This is ultimately false but it is nevertheless inviting. Mendes, in his feature film debut with the fraudulent title, makes the audience complicit in his movie about America’s impending doom.

This is his movie’s hook; that you, the audience, by watching and going along with the opening scene’s homemade video — in which an off-camera narrator asks a vapid, bored teenager: “want me to kill your dad?” — are part of America’s spiral. By engaging an audience steeped in cynicism, he skillfully fulfills his own artistic goal. If you’re infected with the contaminated rot of today’s American culture, from decades of Simpsons, vampires, thugs, gangs, Sopranos and Seinfeld to living every day as if you think the ideal is impossible and your bad mood runs your life, you’ll come away from American Beauty thinking it’s positively ingenious.

That it’s not, that it simply depicts an intellectual satire imposing a distinctly European sense of life on American life, resulting in the movie’s absurdism, which definitely mirrors real life, is accessible only to the uninfected, the clean, the few, those who are not yet the pod people. Yet even these people can see the cleverness of what he’s made. With an opening shot over a Midwestern suburb with a Chicagoland area code, and an embittered voiceover by Spacey’s dead protagonist, American Beauty unfurls its ugly depiction of America’s vanishing sense of life.

Everyone’s as miserable as Spacey’s character by dinnertime. Xylophonic cues signal that it’s safe to fixate and hate this sordid film’s juicy takedown of everything decent and American, which makes it almost seem OK that an occasional act of decency is treated as an act of heroism. Like a TV show about plane crashes, or dysfunctional family, or bitchy ex-wives, the slathered on production values and top-notch cast keep you watching the vainglory. Keep looking for meaning, the narrator and special effects seem to tease, the wreck is coming and it’s not just a trick.

And that the wreckage doesn’t end the world does have a certain sense of relief, like the feeling when you pass a car wreck that at least it wasn’t you, as Stephen King once explained. That Spacey’s unhappy husband and father lusts after his daughter’s very pretty cheerleader Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) — unleashing his fantasy and the film’s theme of roses from his frigid wife’s garden — merely sets up the climactic bundling of the movie’s multiple subplots.

Everyone plays their part to a tee here. From Scott Bakula and Sam Robards as the gay lawyer and doctor couple upending the modern Ozzie and Harriet or Cliff and Clair version of the American Dream to Kevin Spacey as perpetually horny Lester Burnham. All the names concocted by macabre screenwriter Alan Ball (who went on to create Six Feet Under) or Mendes have that cutesy quality. Take the only child Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley, Pete’s Dragon, Lovelace) or Bening’s real estate rival Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher, Path to Paradise) or virtually any other character’s name. As with everything in American Beauty, it’s there to look, sound or feel good in mocking Americanism.

Allison Janney (I, Tonya, TV’s Mom) plays the automaton spouse of an abusive Marine Corps colonel (Chris Cooper, Demolition, October Sky, The Company Men) who drives Ricky Fitts toward the girl next door. It’s Fitts, who quits his job in a pivotal scene that triggers the final act’s big finale, that represents the film’s core philosophy, nihilism.

“Never underestimate the power of denial,” one lead character prophetically says during the subtle shift in action. In lavishly photographed scenes of drunken, money-grubbing, pot-smoking, masturbating, weightlifting couples evading each other in kitchens, gun ranges, motel rooms, fast food joints, back alleys and bathtub fantasies, American Beauty pulls out the stops to spill its sociopathic anti-hero’s death premise across every frame, line and innuendo.

This might not mean what you think you see coming, however, which is the primary goal here as Mendes seamlessly shifts sympathies from some to others. The black-clad, Columbine High-like malcontents run amok prattling about plastic bags with vacant facial expressions while engaging in pseudo-intimacy. It’s like watching and playing with damaged dolls.

Ultimately, this is what American Beauty does best. Bentley’s Ricky Fitts character is a kind of freak of this artificial universe. On one hand, he’s gentle and almost human-like with Birch’s disturbed teenager. But finding beauty in death as he does before musing about a benevolent force doesn’t really align with his actions. The cunning, disowned, disembodied youth is a pathological liar. He films his naked girlfriend instead of being intimate with her. He lights her lawn on fire presumably in an act of courtship. He also listens to Pink Floyd, has a pager for drug deals and gets drug-free urine samples from a pediatric nurse. He only accepts payment for drugs in cash and he’s been out of an institution for a period of time. Oh, and he films naked neighbors but it’s OK since he’s a budding cinema verite filmmaker when he’s not pushing drugs.

It turns out that Ricky and Lester’s daughter Jane more or less discover that beauty only exists in death — in dead birds, funeral processions, guns, swastikas — and they do so just as fire and rain, topped off by a brand-new Pontiac Firebird, fall down in scenes that culminate with the absurdism of Garp mixed with the detachment of Ordinary People

If American Beauty sounds exhausting, curiously, it isn’t. By now it should be clear that there’s so much symbolism in American Beauty that little things like a red door, a child’s sparkler and “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific may go unnoticed. Add to this spunky psychological operetta choreography by Paula Abdul, a score by Thomas Newman and songs by Bobby Darin and what you get is a manufactured motion picture about what Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham calls a “stupid little life”.

It’s not that American Beauty doesn’t express itself well in its satire of Americanism and glorification of the nihilistic. The 1999 movie certainly foreshadows the 21st century, which began with a mass murderous bang which Ricky Fitts would surely find exhilarating. On its own downward terms, this death fantasy is too cute.

Movie Review: Brooklyn

Movie Review: Brooklyn

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Watching the unreservedly, nostalgically romantic Brooklyn, I kept waiting for modernism to creep in and ruin everything. Frankly, there comes a point when that’s poised to happen. But this cinematic tale of one young woman in two contrasting countries plays a neat trick that spins one’s modern expectations.

Audiences should sit back and revel in this version of 1950s New York City’s Brooklyn borough. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Prepare to be moved, delighted and enchanted.

Brooklyn may be the year’s most enchanting picture, vying for the status with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Todd Haynes’ Carol. In solid, primary colors, music and a rare, classic movie look with the intelligence of Nick Hornby’s (A Long Way Down) screenplay to match, director John Crowley (TV’s True Detective) makes a straightforward character study of an assertive, self-aware Irish Catholic woman (Saorise Ronan in a career breakthrough role). Torn between two worlds, the old and the new, in the middle of the 20th century, she is tested.

A lot happens in her young life in this deceptively epic movie, starting with the bold choice to leave Ireland for America, a choice she comes to doubt in spite of a reason to stay in the person of another, endearingly played by Emory Cohen. Hornby’s writing, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, is excellent in every scene, with slow, earned development resulting in subtle, emotional and powerful filmmaking. The script is so well constructed that nearly every aspect has a corresponding aspect to contrast old and new. When she comes to America, her color is green. When she returns to Ireland, her color is yellow, yet these colors represent the character’s opposing sense of life in each nation.

This is because this plain, stern, strange-looking girl is ripped between stark, mid-century institutional and cultural choices such as church versus secular, feudalism versus capitalism, collectivism versus individualism. On top of everything that happens—which you barely notice, thanks to Crowley and Hornby—are complicating factors that would confound anyone’s ability to choose: a genuinely kind and entrepreneurial priest, attentive males that let the woman do the talking, fast, crowded and competitive avenues of opportunity and slow, secluded and privileged means of entitlement.

The fundamental choice is between the old and the new.

Brooklyn depicts this alternating, revolving contest between the Emerald Isle and Coney Island. Almost every part pushes her and the audience into an urgent choice between unearned guilt and guiltless joy, the boss who tells you what to do and the boss who helps you become your best, golf and baseball, females who tear you down and females who build you up. Even her maiden voyage to America has a contrasting, companion scene. That all comes together in a way of her own choosing doesn’t lessen the impact of her integration.

But the subtle sentimentality of Brooklyn makes this a rich, colorfully textured exploration and embrace of Americanism which ought to be studied and enjoyed again and again. Whatever her choice or yours, this is a love letter to the New World—and an appreciation for and rejection of the Old World—with the expressive and breathtakingly achieved theme that choosing a country is as simple and exciting as choosing what makes your own character and choosing to think. Evoking the best, not the worst, of America’s past, through the experience of the newcomer—an immigrant—Brooklyn is a grand slam.

The Great American Hero

The Great American Hero

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

Fourteen years ago on September 11, before the United States entered its longest war, before George W. Bush squandered an opportunity to rally Americans around a moral defense of the nation based on individual rights and Americans instead elected and re-elected Barack Obama and chose to sacrifice liberty for faith in government control predicated on a false sense of national security, one of the passengers on a plane hijacked by Islamic terrorists on 9/11 called an end to plans for self-defense and said: “Let’s roll.”

What the phrase means, then and now, is an Americanism: it’s a combination of the moral commitment to a united act of self-defense imbued with “can-do” optimism. That the men on United Flight 93 who acted on this call to action were the only Americans to succeed in self-defense on that black Tuesday, and that they were civilians as against the government and military personnel whose proper role is to defend the nation, should have made an enormous impact on the American public in terms of discerning military defense as the highest and most proper role of government.

It didn’t. Instead, most Americans chose to have faith in the state and support the omnipotent state, though some, such as Edward Snowden, choose to question the role of government. There are others, including activists, intellectuals and freethinkers across the political spectrum, who fight to varying degrees for individual rights. Last week, the world witnessed in one brave act of self-defense against another Islamic terrorist attack, the return of the American hero.

His name is Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos (pictured here from left to right). There are others, including an American whose struggle against the Moslem terrorist alerted the three young American heroes, and a British businessman. But it was these three who took the religious barbarian, who came charging down an aisle on a train bound for Paris intent on mass murder, down. They hogtied the Islamic radical, who had watched a YouTube video calling for jihad before boarding the train, according to officials in France. What prompted the men—three friends from suburban California—to act was when one of them, upon hearing gunfire, said: “Let’s go.” They charged toward the jihadist and took him down.

The story of this great American act of heroism reminds me of the heroic passengers on United 93. Their call to roll, as historian John David Lewis said while evoking phrases such as “Remember the Alamo!” in my 2011 interview, should have but never caught on. Even more obscure is the fact that, according to reporter Jere Longman, after United 93’s passengers broke into the cockpit and stood facing the enemy, in what may be the last recorded words of the final flight used in the worst attack against America, one lone passenger called out: “Let’s get them!” Then, there was a union of self-defense against the siege and the plane went down.

Last Friday, thanks to an act of self-interest, it was the siege that went down. In the American history of men fighting for life against a barbaric siege, the Alamo’s Davy Crockett once advised: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” These three Americans, Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, heading for Paris, acted on the call to go by reason. Come this year’s 9/11, instead of the meaningless, usual displays of grief, weakness and submission to faith, despair and statism, Americans ought to think of the American hero—Davy Crockett, United 93’s passengers, and the Paris-bound train’s defenders—and pledge to go by reason, get the enemy before it’s too late and roll over any and every threat to our lives and freedom.