Ever since little boxes of ticky-tacky sprung up on the postwar crabgrass, white suburbia has fascinated critics with its perverse mix of conformity and dysfunction, hedonism and postponed gratification, big rooms and suffocating rituals. In the past few years suburban angst films (SubUrbia, The Truman Show, Your Friends and Neighbors, Happiness, The Ice Storm, Pleasantville) have sprawled across the screens, multiplying practically at the rate of strip malls. Now the heavily promoted and critically acclaimed suburban satire American Beauty invades the charged--and, some would say, overdeveloped--erotic territory of the 3 BR, 2 Ba.
The film is the posthumous confession and meditation of one Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a suburban loser turned spiritual seeker. In the year before his death, he tells us, he came alive, animated out of his conformist torpor by a high school cheerleader (Mena Suvari) and the boy next door (Wes Bentley). Lester morphs from an emasculated organization man into a horny hot-rodder who pumps iron, smokes dope, jerks off, and talks back. "You don't get to tell me what to do ever again!" he declares to his strident wife (Annette Bening). "You better watch it, Janie," he warns his disaffected daughter (Thora Birch), "or you're going to turn into a real bitch, just like your mother." "I rule!" Lester gloats at the height of his adolescent insurgency.
The irony of his liberation is that his newly raging machismo finally allows him control over his household, or at least over dinnertime conversation. Indeed, American Beauty is as much about paternal style--absent vs. authoritarian--as male revolt. "I definitely have father issues," screenwriter Alan Ball (also creator of TV's new comedy Oh Grow Up) told the Los Angeles Times. Likewise, Jane opens the film by complaining, "I need a father who's a role model. Not some geek-boy who's going to spray his shorts every time I bring a girlfriend home."
At the house next door, Father (Chris Cooper) hardly knows best: His brutal military-model tactics have resulted in a shell-shocked wife (Allison Janney) and a troubled son (Bentley). The Burnham and Fitts households mirror each other: passive husband/castrating wife on one side of the fence, catatonic wife/dictatorial husband on the other. American Beauty explores the space between these two families by way of the children. Ricky, Bentley's zoom-eyed voyeur, captures the Burnhams' domestic proceedings on videotape (for a vast collection he calls "America's weirdest home videos"), while Birch's seemingly plain Jane captures his attention. "I'm not obsessed," he explains to her, "just interested." Through his camera, Ricky finds avant-garde beauty in the 'burbs, be it a bloody bird or a plastic bag blowing in the wind. "There is this entire life behind things," he philosophizes.
First-time director/theater virtuoso Sam Mendes (Cabaret, The Blue Room) and master cinematographer Conrad Hall invite us to look beyond gleaming suburban surfaces, by way of hyper-real Capraesque segments, lush fantasy sequences, and Ricky's grainy video footage. Sampling genres such as soft-core porn, film noir, and dance musicals, American Beauty shifts from comedy to murder mystery to horror.
Yet this experimental look is limited, as we're only allowed to see the world through selected pairs of eyes: Lester's, Ricky's, and his father's. Unlucky for us, this limits the film's own vision. The movie's running gag makes an assimilationist gay couple (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards) the dysfunctional neighborhood's functional foil. Countless critics have chuckled that this cookie-cutter couple--and their pampered pet Bitsy--outnormal their "normal" neighbors. Yet, for a film that probes homophobia, a gay perspective is oddly absent. Whether this was true of Ball's script or a product of Mendes's direction is another question. As is, Jim and Jim pop in only for sitcom relief, sharing welcome-wagon flower arrangements and body-building tips.
As for heterosex, American Beauty pricks the suburban bubble, but it won't pop the cherry. Beauty rewrites Lolita to preserve the nymphet's virginity and Humbert Humbert's own virtue. Like Nabokov, and later Kubrick, American Beauty fetishizes virginal youth. Notice how Lester's moral awakening occurs only after long, protracted shots of him slipping Angela out of her velveteen jeans. The degree to which the film banks on the allure of maiden flesh was brought home at a recent screening when a grinning oldster thought to ask Bentley, Birch, and Suvari, who were here in the Twin Cities to promote the movie, if indeed they were all virgins.
Blame the film's Playboy ethic, which celebrates Lester's red Firebird and classic rock but sniggers at his wife's SUV and self-help tapes ("I am not a victim" being her guide to "me-centered living"). Likewise, where Lester's liaison is shown in erotic slow-mo, Carolyn's sex with the town's "real estate king" (Peter Gallagher) is presented as athletic comedy. (Him pumping and heaving; her legs spread at an impossible angle as she squeals, "Fuck me, Your Majesty!") Lester garners pity for his plight and then applause for his empowerment trip, while the no-less-tragic Carolyn garners mean mockery throughout.
"It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world," Lester suddenly concludes in the film's final moments. After so much rage and despair, this abrupt shift in tone is unnerving and unconvincing. After indulging our indie-fed taste for acid, American Beauty manipulatively switches to saccharine, closing with conventional family photos and easy philosophy: Don't worry, be happy.
American Beauty is playing at area theaters.