You and I and all those people out there with a vocal love of film have ruined it for everyone, pimping movies up, falling in love with mediocre films and championing them to near-legendary status. We’ve embraced turkeys, legitimized borderline movies, and elevated modest films in our favorite franchises above and beyond realistic standards. We’ve even embraced the films everyone likes, somehow adding a credibility to them that transcends the mainstream. Sacred cows, little flicks, and everything in between. It’s time we took a look inward and came clean with 25 movies we think need to be taken down a peg or two.
These are our four categories for this list:
These guys have had it too easy. Far too easy. Don’t believe the insane hype.
Good flicks that have gotten too damn big for their britches.
Asshole, you love this film for all the wrong reasons.
WHAT THE FUCK
Something went horribly wrong here and it’s carried over the the fans, who are blinded by shizer.
Your guide: Jeremy Smith
Its Legacy: Took down five Academy Awards including Best Picture. Ruined Kevin Spacey. Sidetracked Sam Mendes’s brilliant theater career. Inadvertently endorsed the Lolita fixation for millions of middle-aged men who’ve never read Nabokov (but have heard “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”). Reestablished Conrad Hall’s cinematographic genius for millions of audiences who’d missed Searching for Bobby Fischer. Made everyone an expert on the films of Billy Wilder. Mainstreamed cynicism.
Why It’s Here: American Beauty was destined for overrated status the minute The New York Times‘ Bernard Weinraub proclaimed it “the most talked-about film of the moment”. The problem was that “the moment” was July 2, 1999 – two months prior to the picture’s theatrical release (and not based on early-bird reviews from that year’s Cannes Film Festival). This was no one’s fault but DreamWorks, which was overzealously promoting a difficult-to-market, potential Oscar contender in the immediate wake of Saving Private Ryan‘s surprise Best Picture loss to Shakespeare in Love. They had no interest in a repeat of that heartbreak, and if it meant leaking to the paper of record that Spielberg considered American Beauty “one of the best films he’s seen in years”, so be it.
Though the movie certainly looked the part of a modern classic thanks to Conrad Hall’s lush, meticulous lighting, it was DOA as a satire of middle-class discontent and reprehensible as an emulation of Wilder’s trickiest tonal balancing act, The Apartment (in case you didn’t get that the film was an overt homage, the filmmakers, and especially Spacey, were more than happy to opine as much in interviews). If Alan Ball’s screenplay were a pop song, it’d be “Sowing the Seeds of Love” to Wilder’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”: the dialogue is catchy enough to keep you listening, but you leave the theater humming another, better tune.
Is American Beauty satire? Tragedy? A little of both? A whole lot of neither? As with Six Feet Under, Ball’s empathy for his characters is questionable; there’s no doubt he enjoys torturing them (while delighting in their outré behavior), but when the time for Thomas Newman-scored epiphanies arrives, there’s a stench of obligation. Lester’s a decent guy who succumbs to stereotypical male desires, and he earns our sympathy because he catches a bullet in the face after not fucking Mena Suvari. No sale here, but his beautifully delivered final monologue is ultimately a crock because of those last two lines: “You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry, you will someday.” Not to be literal, but unless we get unexpectedly plugged by our homosexual Nazi neighbor, we probably won’t. Those regrets that drove Lester mad may be white-hot at forty-two, but they’re faded memories once the equipment stops working; and the direct appeal to the audience undercuts the rough sentiment of not being able to feel “anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”
American Beauty never knows if it wants to jar us out of our contented stupor or laugh at us for our ignorant materialistic yearnings. In the end, it does neither well. But it sure looks good in the failing.
A Moment of Piss: “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.”
These Ain’t Chopped Liver Alternatives: Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Risky Business, The Graduate, Real Life, Ikiru.
Justin Waddell Agrees: It’s been almost 10 years since American Beauty made off with an armload of Oscars and other, more prestigious film awards (a Blockbuster Entertainment Award, for example). However, the bloom has steadily been coming off of the rose petals that so famously covered Mena Suvari’s tits & bits as she skinny dipped in one of Lester’s nonsensical but visually striking masturbation fantasies. When it came out, the nation’s critics seemed to join hands and declare the arrival of an American cinematic masterpiece. Go peep Rotten Tomatoes.com to get a load o’ the lovin’. But, I imagine that if we were to ask them now, some red-faced critics would likely admit to getting swept up in (to paraphrase Jeremy) American Beauty fever. However, the damage has been done, and this thing still gets heralded – the latest kudos doled out by an employee at Blockbuster who proclaimed it to be one of her favorites when I rented it (along with Catacombs starring Shannyn Sossamon) for this Agree.
This is a movie at war with itself. Well, if not a war, it’s at least a tussle. After reading about scenes that were left out, rewritten, or shot then dropped, it seems that Ball’s original script was bent more toward the darkly comic. For example, the two teenage lovebirds convolutedly get framed for Lester’s murder by Cooper’s closeted, military tuff. But, it seems that the studio smelled their chance (and rightfully so, it turns out) to butterfly-net them some Oscar gold. So Mendes attempted to make a darkly comic message movie about suburban living AND real beauty AND a non-humping Humbert Humbert AND the seventeen year itch. It ends up just being a confused jumble. It wants to show us a painful portrait of the neutered, middle class white male. But it also wants us to grant it leeway for a Three’s Company-like scene where an action (a shared joint between Spacey and Bentley) is mistaken for something sexual (a blow job). Jack Tripper, this is a poor, poor tribute.
Anchoring it all is Spacey. He’s given a good character here, and he runs wild with it. Lester is a man jolted from a deep marital slumber. His enthusiasm is catching. There really is some great work here between Spacey and Bening (even though Bening, all histrionics, seems like she’s drifted in from another planet.) The scene in which she wakes up to Lester masturbating beside her is great – as is his almost-seduction of her towards the end. Spacey really is the nucleus of the movie, and his performance, along with Conrad Hall’s spit and polish, are the only things left to explain all of the awards weighing it down. It’s certainly not a total loss. Aside from good work by Spacey and Hall, the movie has a confident first half, a good performance by Suvari (really), and even manages to name-check Re-Animator. But, here’s some friendly advice for future viewings: Begin fast-forwarding somewhere in the middle, continue straight through the end (stopping to hear Elliott Smith sing over the credits, of course), speed past Road to Perdition, and then stop right at the beginning of Jarhead – Mendes’ only successful flick, in my small opinion. Or just watch reruns of Married with Children instead. It’s a better version of this story.
P.S. American Beauty fans, what’s with Peter Gallagher’s blackboard eraser-like eyebrows? His forehead must get tired holding those things up.
Nick Nunziata Disagrees: This film was in some ways destined to become the poster child for the thickening midsection of American men and the American film industry at the end of the 90’s. All of the good work done from Sex, Lies, and Videotape and forward was being undone by studios who were starting to realize that independent films could also be big business. Miramax had become an odd business model to follow, paving the way for studios to either create shingles to capitalize on the fringe or for them to throw a lot of hype and money into offbeat films that lured the mainstream towards art films. It’s not exactly a new development but it was an odd hybrid of focus grouped bullshit and actual art being mass distributed. If American Beauty had been released in 1998 or 2000, the backlash against it would be a hell of a lot less substantial than it is, because 1999 is a sacred year and one that American Beauty stole out from under a handful of better and more significant films. But, the fact remains that this is a very good movie and like some that we all champion, as remarkable as much for its flaws as it is for its shining moments.
If you dwell on the “Look Closer” marketing motif and the plaudits that arrived before the film came, it’s hard not to go into the film daring it to suck. Begging for it to blow you over lest it feel your wrath. Sam Mendes and Alan Ball are extremely gifted men, and this foray into the bloated, and incontinent psyche of suburbia has some incredible moments and a deft balance of drama and comedy that outweighs the stupid plastic bag scene or the overdone artifice of Lester Burnham’s (Kevin Spacey, who was terrific in this) mid-life crisis and his infatuation with his daughter’s precocious friend (Mena Suvari, fresh off the mothership). Everything is heightened, partially due to the stage background of the filmmaker but also to allow this little section of an ordinary street to become a microcosm for the dissatisfied state of the American culture. People who look like the American dream but harbor resentment and physical and emotional paunch. People who hide deep seeded hatreds that are waiting to manifest themselves. People whose idea of rebellion and change are but tiny strokes of meaningless fluff.
In the same way that Crash was a few years later, American Beauty is heartily superficial. It sees far deeper into its own meaning that its audience ever could. It’s not as heavyweight as it purports to be, but the difference between Mendes and Haggis’s films is the craft involved and the entertainment value. American Beauty is a luscious film to look at, its sense of humor and willingness to well… look closer at some parts of everyday life makes it quite charming. Especially if you’re able to overlook its heist job at the Oscars. It’s gorgeous. It’s funny. It features some amazing work by Spacey, Bening, and Chris Cooper (the fact this film pushed him up the Hollywood chain justifies its existence, imagine Adaptation without Chris Cooper and shut the fuck up about American Beauty. That’s how much Fuck Fish).
It was overrated in 1999 and 2000. Since then it’s become a whipping boy of a movie. Lost in all of this is the fact that American Beauty is a very good film, pretentious at times and a little too much in belief of its hype, but good. Very much so.
Shower jerks. Nazi flatware. Big ‘ol Birch breasts.
Most films would die for such riches.