Thursday, April 28, 2011

American Beauty (Mendes. 1999)

"I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don't know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already."

Some critics say or write controversial things to get a lot of attention for their reviews. Me, I am not like that. My job is to tell you what is good about a movie, followed by what is bad about a movie and then wrap it up with whether or not I liked the whole production. And though I do believe Clueless is a masterpiece, I still do my best to not push the agenda of my personal favorite films. If Clueless is my most controversial choice for a masterpiece, its counterpart would be my most controversial choice for a piece of garbage. I hate American Beauty. Here is why....

I understand that American Beauty may be the most highly acclaimed film of the last twenty years, but I am still unable to see what the hype is about. The film works incredibly well on certain levels, but it falls flat overall. But it is only fair to go into the screws that hold this film together. The most notable screw in this film would have to be Kevin Spacey.

Spacey gives the performance of his life as Lester Burnham. In the early moments of the introduction, we learn that Burnham is going to die. His death may be a sweet escape from his disastrous home life. His wife is a "bloodless, money-grubbing freak." And his daughter is even worse. She is confused about how to be herself. Pretty standard teenage stuff, right? What makes things worse is that she does not hate her father. She feels sorry for him. She thinks he is pathetic. And he might be - seeing that the high points of his day consist of masturbating in the shower and fantasizing about sixteen year old girls.

Lester is a character that continuously flips our perspective on the plot. At first we laugh at how ridiculous his family problems seem on the outer layer. He is okay with us laughing at his pathetic life. After we dive more deeply into the story, our pride begins to hurt as we see him fall more and more into a mental state of pathetic self-loathing. It is a devastatingly emotional performance that won Spacey the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Maybe the greatest aspect of American Beauty, the art direction is out of this world. It would be difficult to find a film that is easier on eye than this one. In one of the most memorable scenes, Mena Suvari is swimming in a sea of dark and beautifully red roses. The red pops out from the screen in the most affective of ways. It could symbolize lust, death, blood, desire or a variety of other emotional color-triggers. This scene is perfectly complemented by the background score. We are listening to a score that creates a feeling of awkward sexuality. This is an interesting combination that Mendes works brilliantly.

With all of the being said, I hated American Beauty. I have watched this film eight times in my life, and I am yet to enjoy a single viewing. Why? I strongly believe that American Beauty is the single most pretentious and self-important film I have ever seen. Its self-insistence is rivaled only by its lack of entertainment value. And the pretentious stupidity hits the high point in the film's most famous moment.

Wes Bentley plays the mentally damaged Ricky Fitts. He films dead bodies, deals drugs and is not ordinary. He falls for Lester's daughter and shows her the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. What does he show her? A freakin' plastic bag that is blowing around in the wind. And we watch this scene in amazement for one of two reasons. Either we are pretending to see the nonexistent deep symbolism or we are dumbfounded by the stupidity of it all.

And though the ending is "shocking", I am at the point where I no longer care about the outcome. Roger Ebert says that a good film can never have too many scenes. I believe that American Beauty throws around superfluous filler in abundance. And though it is difficult to dismiss the efforts of a brilliant cast and director, a film should always be reviewed on its entertainment merits. In that case, American Beauty sucks.

American Beauty: D+

My Next Film...High School (Wiseman. 1968)


  1. What the hell are you talking about, dude....

    We analyzed your site here in and this particular review in school and I am sorry to say that we have come to the conclusion that you are more pretentious, self-important and exaggerated than the film will ever be.
    It is fairly obvious that you think a whole lot of yourself, that you merely want to be rebellious in order to be interesting, and that you crave the love/respect of the absolute strangers who might actually read this in the random and bored roaming throughout the Net.
    You say you hate the film and yet you have watched it eight times, your review is more than 80% praise rather than saying what is bad about the film and you have almost no arguments against the film, though indeed the one you have is fairly decent I must admit.

    Take this not as an insult but rather the half-sincere ramblings of somewhat bored student when he had nothing to do.


    P.S. How the in the Hell is "Clueless" a fucking masterpiece?! It's just another beverly-hills-teenage-crap movie. WTHell

    P.P.S. I actually only watched the trailer but there you have it. The Truth.

  2. Movies like Clueless achieve their goal. It does and is exactly what it is supposed to do and be. For me, American Beauty is a movie that is uninteresting. It does not strike any sort of chord. A good movie is one that you should want to watch over and over. I have seen American Beauty 8 times in my life not because I enjoyed it, but because I have seen it in film school, high school filmmaking class, once as part of the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, twice on dates and three times with other people. I am not fan because I do not care by the end. I want to be a film critic and I have already broken into the industry. I am SUPPOSED to think a lot about my opinion. That is the point...

  3. I agree. i don't think that Clueless is a masterpiece. But it's witty and funny. I think American Beauty goes through very mundane philosophy of life that i hear zillions of times. Having material possessions is not living. True love is about seeing what's inside a person etc etc. Free thinkers smoke weed and listen to Pink Floyd and the Beatles. Homophobic people have some homosexual tendencies and they hate themselves for it. So they suppress it and bash gay people so they can feel secure in themselves. Sure I agree with a lot of it. But it's so boring. It's the whole hatred of suburban life thing too. Anyone can argue with most of what this movie seems to be saying. Like for example, what if Thora Birch's character was black? Would that have changed Wes Bentley's true love for her. I think so. He would probably be like, "Let's just be friends." Also with the gay thing, there could be many reasons that a person is homophobic. Choosing the one that sounds the most clever doesn't make it true. The film is just too full of pop pro-spiritual anti-material philosophies. Boring.

  4. Spot on sir. I actually loved American Beauty when I first saw it (at age 15) but now that I'm 13 years older and wiser, this now strikes me as one of the most irritating films in existence. To be fair there are a few scenes which are quite funny and the technical chops are beyond reproach, but the movie is trying to present itself as something much more serious than a mere satire.

    It starts with Lester Burnham and gets worse from there. He is pathetic and a hypocrite of the highest order, which would be fine if the movie was an ironic comedy, but instead he's presented as a grand, heroic figure. Thus, with its fetishization of a hypocrite, I have little choice but to view the entire film itself as an exercise in hypocrisy.

    That's all the time I have for this comment, but you get the idea ;)

  5. I can understand the fact that you may not in particular enjoy this film, that's alright. You mentioned the fact that based on entertainment value, you didn't get get any... I can agree with that. This movie wasn't exactly filled with action and dramatic scenes (except the ending obviously). Although it is a moving film, it doesn't exactly make you feel emotional for the most part (again except for the ending). That's your opinon and you're definitely entitled to it...


    When you mentioned how stupid the plastic bag flying around was, I just had to shake my head in disbelief...

    "...shows her the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. What does he show her? A freakin' plastic bag that is blowing around in the wind. And we watch this scene in amazement for one of two reasons. Either we are pretending to see the nonexistent deep symbolism or we are dumbfounded by the stupidity of it all."

    There's no pretending going on, that flying plastic bag says it all. It explains everything the movie is trying to portray.

    "It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... and I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in."

    It's like this... we're all living this life in this great pursuit of our own personal happiness. It's exciting and all in the beginning but after a while, life becomes a hassle because of how repetitive and mundane it is. I mean, who has never asked themself "WHAT THE FUCK IS IT ALL ABOUT?"? You ever wonder what you're trying to accomplish when you wake in the morning? Of course you have. That plastic flying around answers that question. It's so simple. That's what THIS is all about. NOTHING. At the end, all these things we acquire, the the things we accomplish, the good times we had, the friends we made... it's all temporary. In the grand scheme of things, they don't make a difference. Our existence don't mean shit. That's the ugly truth and it depresses us. Our lives don't mean anymore than that flying plastic bag... We're all just floating around until our time's up. At the same time, that's what makes it all so beautiful. That's the beauty in life. Step back and truly realize it. However insignificant that plastic bag flying around on that windy afternoon is.. For that single moment, it had it's chance to float around. For this moment right here, we can just BE.