What hit me hardest seeing it this last time was how incredibly calculated so much of it felt. A large portion of the plot turns on superficial characterizations that are never quite brought to full life. Carolyn’s sudden interest in guns, for instance. The scene in the motel where she is introduced to the concept of recreational shooting by rival real estate magnate Buddy King struck me as one of the phoniest in the entire film this time around. When he holds up his hands and pantomimes shooting, telling her that when he feels stressed out it likes to go down to the range and “pop off a few rounds,” is there a moment where it seems genuine, where it feels like these are real people, that this guy has ever really been to a gun club? Or do they seem more like characters in a play?
The character of Ricky bothered me seeing the film this time, as well. This is a troubled kid, a creepy kid. He videotapes windblown paper bags, dead animals, girls who live next door. He’s sensitive and perceptive and unnaturally wise. He also has a very rough home life, thanks to his strict and paranoid ex-Marine father. Many times, I felt great sympathy for him. Many other times, I wanted to kick him down a flight of stairs. That perception and unnatural wisdom of his comes across as know-it-all teenage smugness a lot of the time, Exhibit A being the moment near the end when he tells snobby cheerleader Angela that she is not as beautiful as she thinks she is, that she is in fact ugly and boring and ordinary. Since Angela is the character most obsessed with not being ordinary—she says as much at least once, in case a few people didn’t pick up on it otherwise—this is meant to be quite a stinger. But the line as written is so obvious that it’s less of a sting and more like a slap across the face with a dead salmon.
Ricky’s father, the stern Col. Frank Fitts, gave me some problems. Like most of the other characters, Frank is a one-note creation. He’s the tense, severe disciplinarian. When his new gay neighbors stop by to politely welcome him to the neighborhood, he reacts with homophobic disgust. “Why do these faggots always have to rub it in your face?” he asks Ricky as he drives his son to school a few minutes later. With this attitude thus established, and reinforced in a later scene where he declares he would rather throw his son out on the street than “watch him become a cocksucker,” we are meant to be shocked when Frank makes a pass at Lester, coming in from the rain to embrace him and plant a tentative kiss on his lips.
And when I first saw the film, I was shocked. Now, I see it as a naked contrivance. I don’t find it surprising at all. It’s the obvious move. It’s the only way that character could possibly go, because that is the direction he is being shoved from the moment he appears onscreen. The thing is, American Beauty, while a funny film, and a somewhat tragic film, and a very well directed film, is not a very creative film. There are a few twists in plot and character, but these are all predictable developments. There are no legitimate surprises. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if the film didn’t rely so heavily on these supposedly astounding revelations.
None of these faults are due to the actors, I should say. This time, as with the other times I watched it, I had nothing but admiration for the performances. Chris Cooper was excellent, as he always is, as Frank Fitts. Thora Birch and Wes Bentley did well as Jane and Ricky. I particularly liked Allison Janney’s nearly silent turn as Ricky’s mother, a woman so psychologically destroyed by years of marriage to Frank that she spends most of the film sitting quietly in her house. And Kevin Spacey was just right as Lester, protagonist and narrator. No one plays sarcasm as well as Spacey, and he gets several opportunities to show his skill, particularly when he attends a party with Carolyn and assures her, “Okay, honey, I won’t be weird,” a plastic smile pasted on his face, his voice dripping with insincerity.
One of the reasons I’m so ambivalent about this film is that it was released during maybe the best single year for American film of my life so far. A few of the other films released in 1999, just off the top of my head: Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Being John Malkovich, Bringing Out the Dead, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Iron Giant, and Boys Don’t Cry. All great films, all superior to American Beauty (in my own damn opinion, anyway), all gypped by a great many critics and moviegoers, who preferred a film that seemed thoughtful, but grows less impressive the more you think about it.
It’s a good film, American Beauty. I still admire much of it, especially its dreamy and existential ending. Lester’s closing narration choked me up when I saw it the first time, and it still gets to me today. And it’s a funny film, with a nice message. And Kevin Spacey did a great job. But he didn’t deserve Best Actor. Not that year, not when his competition included John Cusack in Being John Malkovich and John C. Reilly in Magnolia. And the film didn’t deserve Best Picture, not with so many better ones sitting right there.