Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula
Director: Sam Mendes (his first film)
Summary: An unemployed ad man becomes disillusioned with suburbia
Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Spacey)*, Actress (Bening), Original Screenplay*, Original Score, Cinematography*, Film Editing
When American Beauty came out in 1999, it won pretty much every major Best Picture award there was and was considered a true modern classic; with that said, a lot about the movie has aged horribly because of how much the United States has changed since its release.1999 was the height of American peace, prosperity and contentment: back then making a super self-important movie about how much it sucks being a well-off white family in the suburbs seemed totally reasonable (Reality Bites and Rent also have this same problem). The problem isn’t its themes or even in its characters, but in how it presents them to us. For instance, the three major characters in the film who by the end we’re supposed to think have cut through the “phony baloney bullshit” of soulless suburban life (Spacey’s, Bentley’s and to a lesser extent Birch’s) are all really grating in one way or another. Bentley is a pretentious, pseudo-profound 18 year old drug dealer layabout who creepily films people in the dark without their permission and we’re supposed to think he’s smarter than all these other “phonies” out there; Along with being an asshhole throughout the film in general, Spacey quits his job so that he can flip burgers, specifically because it’s the job with the least amount of responsibility he could think of, without telling his wife or daughter. Birch is more of a normal, insecure high school with bad judgment, but I don’t know how positive her changes by the end of the film really are (assuming she actually intends to move somewhere with her drug dealer boyfriend and somehow figure out what to do without even a high school diploma). Everything about these characters and the entire movie screams smugness in a way that is totally undeserved. This is somewhat related to another complaint I have-what exactly is the message here? What is it telling ultimately trying to tell us in the end besides the darkness underneath suburbian life? I believe the film gets muddled here. Honestly, the characters that I gravitated towards were Bening’s and Suvari’s; while they are deeply flawed, their flaws are more the result of external societal expectations that have shaped who they are vs. Spacey and Bentley, who are supposed to be flawed but still “the smart/awoken ones”, are pompous assholes most of the time, something much more internal and less sympathetic.
With all this said, the movie does actually have a number of really strong points that honestly make it solidly above average even in light of all its problems. The entire cast is outstanding, especially Spacey, Bening, Suvari and Cooper giving Academy Award-worthy performances. The screenplay also has a lot of merit to it: I have to grant that the dialogue is memorable even if it annoyed the hell out of me sometimes and all the characters are well developed (even if I had problems with several of them), with Suvari, Bening and Cooper’s being especially strong and fit perfectly with everything the movie wanted to explore thematically. The humor also consistently hits its mark, and the pacing is very solid. It’s really a shame though-if you gave the concept, themes and actors to a different writer and director with a different perspective, you might have gotten something really special, something that cut into the heart of problems that the American dream can entail, but without constant smug tone and misfired characters and messages that we got here. Then again, that might have turned into something much more bland and less memorable, so maybe it was for the best.