“American Beauty” is a movie that reeks with that same smug satisfaction of an eighth grade algebra student who thinks they’re smarter than their instructor. A seminal piece of late 90s high brow porn, “American Beauty” was less a story and more a status symbol. The fact that not only did you see it, but you got it, was just as valuable in upscale social circles as owning a Mercedes Benz or your piece of Hamptons time share. Which is funny, because that type of society and gloating way of life is what “American Beauty” completely argues against.
Directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball at the top of both of their creative games, this satire follows the dismantling and rebuild of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). He’s an early 40’s corporate cog who looks much closer to 60, trapped in a sexual stalemate with his floundering realtor wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) and near-goth daughter Jane (Thora Birch). When Lester peeks upon Angela (Mena Suvari), Jane’s prettier, peppier sorta friend, his attraction goes from 0 to “Lolita” in 10 seconds flat.
The romance, of course, is inappropriate and over-hyped, but it reawakens a rebellious and free-spirited nature in Lester. He adopts a perpetual teen-on-summer-vacation lifestyle, spending all his waking hours flipping burgers, lifting weights, and smoking joints to Zeppelin tunes, courtesy of future art student dropout Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). When Jane and Ricky connect through their mutual strangeness, we start to learn more about his strained relationship with his closeted marine father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper).
All of these forces conjure a masterful anti-melodrama that digs beneath the surface of suburbia to reveal that its supporting bricks are all made out of plastic. Spacey is at his sardonic best, Mendes’ direction is stylish but nuanced, and a whimsical, experimental score from Thomas Newman makes the film feel as if its fluttering on the back of carefree, gliding bird.
But it’s hard to look at the reception for “American Beauty” and not think that the point was kind of missed. Carolyn seems exactly the type of moviegoer who would attend some exclusive realtor convention and initiate conversation about the film to seem sophisticated. It’s the kind of movie that Lester would abhor and turn off in favor of “Rambo: First Blood” or some Schwarzenegger classics. Even the mention of the movie by her parents would cause Jane to spew endless complaints to Angela and Ricky.
Mendes and Ball do seem like the kind of creators, though, who would have anticipated that kind of ironic response. With its usurping of the jolly neighborhood, the movie sits at a firm midpoint between the zaniness of “Blue Velvet” and the lush domesticity of “Far from Heaven, incorporating the best of both without missing their message. “American Beauty,” in turn, has become something more self-referential and prophetic than mere pre-9/11 satire. Just as the police who eventually search Ricky’s video tapes will misinterpret them, so will we continue to process and discuss art like “American Beauty” in self-serving ways, missing their message in favor of spreading our own.