Tuesday, September 21, 2010
American Beauty. C
American Beauty is a labor of love for its director, Sam Mendes. His first feature, Mendes wanted to pay respect to old favorites while instituting new ideas into the culture. The narration of a dead man is from Sunset Blvd, the shot of the family at dinner is a nod to Ordinary People, and the dance at the basketball team is Mendes expressing his love for the classic Hollywood musical. So it's a pretty daring endeavor for this rookie to liberate such respected models as the common man and show how he crumbles beneath his public image. Suburban America is Mendes' location, and the destruction of those trapped in it is his subject. Mendes points out in the DVD commentary that a recurring motif is that the central character, Lester (Kevin Spacey) is imprisoned. There are numerous occasions when we see him in an enclosed space or through various windows. The whole purpose of the story is that Lester and his wife are trapped in suburbia and scraping to get out of it. This isn't a very good movie, and it looks even worse next to Mendes similar Revolutionary Road. That movie, which is great, really captured a mood and atmosphere that was both distinct and believable. American Beauty on the other hand is almost a fantasy in the way it visits with its eccentric characters and their preposterous actions. It takes one man's illicit attraction to a high school girl, his wild fantasies about her, and a shocking, evil plan (we find it out at the start) and spins them into a web of suburban daydreaming. It gives us an interesting protagonist in Lester, who seems like a fantasy character (but is nonetheless deeply complex) and then juxtaposes him with two extreme caricatures (one is his desperate wife, played by Annette Benning, and the other a former marine, Chris Cooper). There are an assortment of other people who find their way into this strange little movie as well. Moralists will have a hard time defending American Beauty, much less sitting through it without cringing. Morality is essentially ignored in the movie, except for man's natural sense of right and wrong that is displayed at the film's end. I like what Stephen Greydanus had to say about it when he suggested that instead of having a moral, American Beauty has an aesthetic. And indeed, the movie deals with plenty of moral issues. But instead of making a statement about them, it ignores them and suggests that there is too much beauty in the world for morality to dominate. So morality must take a seat to beauty, because that's what counts the most. So the movie says.