by Midge Wilson, Ph.D
A perfect film, an indictment of the American Dream, and some scary revelations about American culture are revealed in American Beauty.
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Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last couple of weeks, then you likely already know that reviews for American Beauty are off the charts. In short, it’s one of the best films on American culture made in recent memory, and comparisons with The Graduate are more than justified. There are virtually no flaws in this film. The writing is extremely good (sitcom writer Alan Ball in his first produced feature film screenplay), as is the directing (theatrical director Sam Mendes in his feature film debut)) and the cinematography (Oscar winner Conrad Hall, who also shot Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, A Civil Action, and Searching for Bobby Fischer). The cast is superb (Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Peter Gallagher, and Mena Suvari), and each character is played to their truest note on the scale.
What impressed me the most about American Beauty, though, is the balance it manages to strike between cynicism, said to be the defining sentiment of our day, and sweet romanticism. There are so many places in this film in which the story line could have veered into something truly mean, but it never did. In the end, the only real wrong done was committed characters whose hearts were already filled with hate. American Beauty is also refreshing in its absence of preachy morality regarding drug usage or sex. In that sense, American Beauty struck me as more European in its sensibilities than American. Because of that, the religious right will undoubtedly issue some statement about the evils of a film in which a father buys pot from a neighborhood kid and attempts to seduce his daughter’s best friend. But among the film’s many messages is that homophobia is what kills, and that remains something the religious right has yet to figure out.
Other issues addressed both directly and indirectly in American Beauty include the horrors of child abuse, the meaningless of materialistic pursuits, the loss of aliveness that can happen at middle age, the angst of teenhood, and the essence of beauty. At first glance, the title is thought to refer to the character of Angela (Mena Suvari), the beautiful best friend of Lester Burnham’s (Kevin Spacey) daughter (Thora Birch). But by film’s end, Angela is just another teenage girl who has to pee. What is really beautiful in life are those things that happen in the moment like a bag dancing in the wind. This is a wonderful message.
If there is one criticism that I could level at this film, and it is a minor one, it is that for once it would be nice to see a story like this told from the perspective of a female. Imagine a hip, middle-aged woman, maybe even one who wasn’t White, doing all the cool things that the Spacey character does and by film’s end we still feel just as good about her, flaws and all, as we do about him. How refreshing would that be? Instead, we get an empty materialistic shell of a frigid woman who is to blame for her husband’s unhappiness and her daughter’s insecurity. Maybe one day…but until then, run—don’t walk, to see this masterpiece.
Midge Wilson, Ph.D lives in Chicago and is a member of the faculty at De Paul University.
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