Photographed by canonical cinematographer Conrad Hall near the end of his long and varied career, American Beauty is a luminously, exasperatingly gorgeous motion picture. It also makes you feel a little sick for caring about cinematography at all, especially when it is put to use excusing and gussying up Alan Ball’s amateurish, ruthlessly self-apologetic, largely confused screenplay. Ball is a fully capable writer – his television shows have their place in a society currently convincing itself it is in the midst of a sort of Golden Age of Television. But he has never been particularly suited to the cinematic medium, and his exercises in concision truncate and confuse what is given episodes upon episodes to expand itself on the small screen. In particular, he has a severe difficulty managing tone, shooting from sickeningly sentimental monologues about modern society to cruel and unusual acerbic put-downs of a great majority of its cast, not to mention the paltry, piece-meal questions raised by his simplistic treatment of the modern middle-class. American Beauty is a troublesome, troubled film, and all the beauty in the world can’t make up for a screenplay as hurtful as this.
We begin with Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey, a perfect match of actor and role if ever there was one), who informs us via caustic voice-over throughout the film that he hates his middle-class office job and desperately seeks a certain form of social rebellion unbecoming of a safe modern male such as him. He seems disconnected from his wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) and his daughter Jane (Thora Birch), and interested only in paling around with his teenage neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley) – who enters into a relationship with Jane – and fantasizing about Jane’s friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). Ricky’s dad Frank (Chris Cooper) is a retired military man, and his taciturn, blunt presence is confused by Ricky’s artistic interest, not to mention the presence of Lester who, to Frank, seems to be courting his son with temptations of some kind, be they simply temptations of weed and genre films, or more sexualized ones. Eventually Lester quits his job, blackmailing his employer into his old salary, and he starts anew as a fast food worker, trying to relive his teenage years and boldly, defiantly spit in the face of the crushing weight of adulthood.
All of American Beauty’s consistent irritations, its petulant confusions, and its own adolescent holier-than-thou identity crises encircle the nexus of Lester’s narration, both the central crux and crutch of director Sam Mendes’ film. Narration, unless employed judiciously or transgressively, is generally an overly-obvious reflection of a screenwriter unable to explore their characters with subtler, cinematic, and mostly visual means. Such transgressive potential arguably exists near American Beauty’s narration, but it lies a few houses over. Hearing Lester drone about the perils of modern consumerism and his identity crisis as an everyday male beset by the troubles of children and, especially, women, never once attains a self-reflexive, confrontational demeanor. The film never once indicts itself for subscribing to his halfhearted, smugly oppressive accusations and excuses.
It might have been possible for the film to move beyond Lester had it, ironically, stuck to Lester, singularly suffocating us with Lester’s worldview until it grows tiresome and weary, subtly undercutting his false wisdom with a realization that this worldview is its own juvenile, self-serving form of predetermined malice. But the film diverts from Lester, showing us the lives of his daughter, his wife, and many other figures in scenes where Lester is not present, and because it adopts a third-person omniscient tone, and pointedly not Lester’s worldview, the fact that it sympathizes so much with Lester can’t but indicate a belief that Lester is right. Lester preaches disdain for his wife Carolyn, for instance, but the film follows suit and criticizes her even when he is absent. In doing so, it adopts Lester’s perspective as the perspective rather than simply his own limited perspective, and its undying sympathy to Lester grates the longer the film persists.
Even outside its one-note perspective on the modern male crisis, the film is far too cloying and insistent about its messianic views on suburban life and Clinton-era social growth. It never functions as anything other than a prettier, shriller Ordinary People married to a petty comedy that plays with smirking naughtiness to scare the middlebrows in the audience. Whenever a thoughtful, genuine observation about human interaction might come to call, the film instead retreats to a safe and tidy variant of thumbing its nose at humanity (women in particular, and successful women with jobs even more particularly) and making fun of them from a safe distance. Its deliriously over-wrought understanding of painful symbolism is one issue among many, but probably the single greatest misstep in a film without any idea how to nuance itself beyond “well people are shit, but all non-male, non-teenage people are especially shit”. Said symbolism – a rose in particular is a constant threat thinking it is a lush pretty – is the abstract ideal of vaguely masturbatory artiness propping up an otherwise obvious motion picture, a work for people who think they are clever but don’t have an imaginative bone in their body. A work for Lester, in fact.
Just about the only thing in the film legitimately undercutting Lester’s false charms is Spacey himself, giving probably his most famed performance and one that fully and entirely, if maybe accidentally, captures the lecherous, libidinous side of Lester’s ego run amok. It is no secret that Spacey always sounds vaguely self-superior in his performances, and he brings an acerbic, cutting edge to his portrayal of Lester that fascinatingly contrasts with the loveliness of the film’s cinematography and the obviousness of its social observations.
Most of the performances veer toward brilliant, in fact, although the film’s disturbing treatment of its characters makes this a dubious achievement to say the least. This is particularly true for Annette Benning, who is wonderful in a role that desperately wishes to abuse her as a vile Ice Queen of a modern, empowered female who is wholly obsessed with successful social airs and has no time for Lester’s closeted social rebellion. The film never once bothers to ask whether women, routinely disempowered in society, may have more reason to struggle to fit in and may have more reason to reject anything socially disagreeable in order to survive in a society wanting to put them down. It never once bothers to question why movies are so sympathetic to men who desperately seek to return to immature, adolescent states, while women are so often judged for the same actions. It never once bothers to ask this because it wouldn’t fit into the film’s view of women as grotesque, angular Cruella de Vil types endlessly barking at their husbands. As the film sees it, Lester is a soulless person looking for a soul, while Carolyn is just a glass figure who couldn’t care less how hollow she is on the inside.
Which brings us back to the cinematography, which is painfully poetic and piercingly potent, if somewhat at odds with the lusty impulses of Lester’s id. For a film that is so scorchingly and inflexibly critical of materialism (although it certainly identifies with Lester’s quasi-rebellious brand of adolescent materialism), it is an almost ironically image-obsessed film. It hammers home its obsessive visuals with a compulsive streak a mile wide, absolutely engaging itself with all of its senses and basking in every smell and sight it can possibly find in a way that feels less insightful than packaged and plastically pretty. Hall’s images, poetically gliding and hyper-realized in a classical, almost primary-colored sense, deconstruct the boxed-up, bow-covered nature of suburbia, reading the superficial good looks of suburban lifestyle past themselves until the surface-level pleasures become gross. It is a film with visuals that are so pretty that they feel falsely, cloyingly, artificially sugar-sweet, like their own wrapped-up, packaged form of corporate prettiness that suffocates any life out of the film. It may be that Hall was clever and subversive enough to critique the film privately, and everyone else was too distracted by their egos to notice. The visuals feel too composed to breathe at all, as if their inability to do so was their very purpose, possibly a great trick perpetrated by Hall under Sam Mendes’ and Alan Ball’s nose. They choke the film, like the strangling superficial beauty of suburbia itself.
But the rest of the film seems convinced of life even in its own necrosis; it is so stuffy, so self-important, and so smug about its own pestering, amateurish observations about consumerist society, and its only solution to these problems is to reduce itself to a teenage male again. It vaguely pretends to criticize Lester once or twice, but the attempts to do so are but tricks and lies to defend itself against criticism. It is absolutely gorgeous, as all of Sam Mendes’ films are, but Mendes’ film treats these visuals as a particularly hollow form of gorgeous, serving not to enhance or fascinatingly explore its narrative, but to excuse it, and even hide it. Even when the visuals sometimes work to critique the film, for its hollow qualities, they are too little, too late. In the end, this film is what it strives to critique: a sterile, corporate, vacant, empty, valueless void with a bow around it. A void that could be called suburbia, but it turns out the name American Beauty does just fine.