Know that sense of relief you always get when something happens that finally allows you to express how much you dislike something? That moment has finally come. I hate American Beauty (1999), and I’ve always hated American Beauty. I don’t just hate it. I f*cking hate it. If I were to make a list of my most overrated films of all time, it would make it into the Top 10, easily.
Why have I always hated American Beauty? This completely trite, pretentious piece of crap was able to win tons of accolades because it successfully mimicked the look of the type of films we tend to think of as being deep, sophisticated and thought-provoking. Nothing draws my ire more than when a mediocre film is able to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes with such finesse and earn so many awards in the process.
I couldn’t tear American Beauty apart all these years because of the obnoxious cult-like devotion to The Great Kevin Spacey and the fact that it won so many Oscars. But now that the bloom is off the rose, it is with immense pleasure that finally–finally–I rip this shallow, smug, pretentious drool of a movie to pieces, and for the following reasons:
The Framing Device
I don’t care what anyone else thinks–the framing device has got to be one of the cheapest and laziest writing tactics ever known to man, next to “it was all a dream”. Initially used as an interesting way to tell a story, it’s become a crutch that insecure writers use when they’re not confident enough in their story to let it stand on its own.
“But, but, but–!” you cry. “How can you be so down on framing devices when there’s Sunset Boulevard? It’s one of the best movies of all time! That had a framing device! And it was that framing device that was a large part of why it’s considered a classic!”
Ah, glad you mentioned Sunset Boulevard. Let’s talk about that movie, shall we? Yes, it used a framing device. But there was a clever reason behind it. You see, the movie is about a struggling screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden), who hopes to become the next Dashiell Hammett. The problem is that he’s a complete hack in the worst way and couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.
As you find out right from the beginning of the movie, he gets killed. Then the movie sets out to explain how and why. Sunset Boulevard could’ve just played out the circumstances of his death the typical way, but it did something clever. It had it all play out in the exact type of way that Gillis, as a hack film noir writer, would’ve written it. So not only did it have him narrate his own murder (because in film noirs, protagonists always narrates the story), it had him tell his own story via a framing device, which had become a major film noir cliche at that point (most famously seen in the movie, D.O.A.).
Having Gillis posthumously narrate his own death added a further sardonic punch to the movie. Here was a man who had spent his entire life trying to write the perfect film noir and failing miserably at it, only to die under circumstances far more original and creative than anything he could’ve written when he was alive.
In American Beauty, there was no clever reason behind the framing device. The only purpose in having Lester Burnham narrate his own death was to add tension to mask an otherwise flabby, predictable and cliched script and to fool everyone into thinking that because the movie imitated the brilliant Sunset Boulevard, it was a brilliant film, too. That’s all.
It’s a Pathetic, Self-Indulgent Fanboy Homage to Jack Lemmon
I know. You think I’m crazy. What the hell does Jack Lemmon have to do with American Beauty? He was America’s charming “every man” and the 1960s equivalent of Tom Hanks, a guy who played in a large number of endearing films and would’ve never appeared in a movie this cheap and sleazy.
Well, I’ll tell you what he had to do with this film. If you’re at all familiar with Lemmon, you know that he had certain mannerisms, facial expressions and gestures that, as subtle as they were, were unmistakably his. In American Beauty, there’s no question that Spacey is mimicking him the entire time, right down to the head turns.
But he’s not only channeling Lemmon. The entire movie is channeling many of Lemmon’s movies, not just in terms of scenes but in terms of themes, plot points and scenes. The plot point of Lester Burnham having a mid-like crisis and chasing after a young girl young enough to be his daughter is straight out of Save the Tiger. The scene of him throwing a plate during dinner is similar to the scene from The Odd Couple in which Walter Mattheau (as Oscar Madison) throws a plate of linguini. It’s been over a decade since I’ve seen American Beauty so can’t remember everything else in detail, but I definitely remember seeing at the time other Lemmon-esque moments or scenes from his movies.
There’s nothing wrong with actors channeling other actors or movies doing homages. Some of the best performances and movies of all time were had this way–for example, Bette Davis reportedly based her character in All About Eve on Tallulah Bankhead, and Star Wars was an homage to 1930s sci-fi serials. But there’s a big difference between channeling actors or doing homages and what’s going on in American Beauty. At best, the movie comes across as a creepy, self-indulgent shrine to Lemmon; at worst, it looks like a movie that was specifically written for Jack Lemmon and cast Kevin Spacey instead because the former turned the role down. Whatever the case may be, it’s all very cringe-inducing to watch.
1970s Called…It Wants Its Tired “Social Drama” Tropes Back
One of the funnest things about American Beauty ripping off Save the Tiger and other Jack Lemmon dramas is that it wound up lifting tropes that hadn’t been relevant since John Travolta strutted across the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever. The “mid-life crisis” couldn’t be a more dated 1970s drama trope; all that was missing from the movie was having Annette Bening’s character go through “The Change” and moan about developing facial hair and having a lowered sex drive like a 1970s Norman Lear character.
It’s a Sitcom Masked as “Satire”
A pseudo-satire is anything that claims to be a satire but doesn’t actually make fun of the actual thing that it says it’s satirizing.
A great example is Bringing Down the House. Meant to satirize race relations between blacks and whites in America, nothing in the movie actually satirized the way blacks and whites actually behave and think. It just created a whole new cartoony universe in which they behaved and acted completely different from the way they do in real life. The movie even went so far as to invent its own version of “jive” that didn’t come close to resembling street talk in real life, then presented that made up vernacular as a satire of black slang.
In Bringing Down the House’s defense, at least it had an excuse–it was a comedy. American Beauty wasn’t supposed to be a comedy at all, which makes its sins all the more egregious. I know–you want to fight me on this. But don’t be fooled. Do not be fooled by its pretense of it supposedly making some kind of scathing commentary about white middle class suburbia. It’s no less cartoony and no more rooted in reality than Bringing Down the House or the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera. None of the characters or situations resemble anything that reflects that demographic, let alone human beings regardless of race or socio-economic class. What passes for satire is basically a bunch of one dimensional characters who happen to be white and middle class acting in sitcom ways and getting into sitcom-like situations.
Oh, and speaking of sitcoms, the writing on American Beauty couldn’t have been more shallow, filled with cliched dialogue and cardboard characters who speak and act like something out of NBC’s 1990s Must See TV lineup. Actually, saying that would be an insult to NBC sitcoms of the ’90s, as the writing on those shows were heads and shoulders above what passes for writing in this junk heap of a movie. Even the characters on Seinfeld–who were meant to be one dimensional stereotypes–had more depth and range than the characters in American Beauty.
I know some people are going to try to be slick and say, “Well, that was the point! These were such shallow people that they acted like sitcom characters and could only talk in cliches.” Please. That’s giving this whiff of effluvia way too much credit, like claiming that Dumb and Dumber was a thought-provoking treatise on the rise of American anti-intellectualism in a post-modernist age. American Beauty is what it is, poorly written pap that would’ve been canceled inside of four episodes on any TV network.
American Beauty is warmed over junk. It’s an adult coloring book of Renaissance paintings, a cheap plastic Cracker Jack decoder ring that decodes Shakespearean quotes. It’s American processed cheese molded and dyed to look like the finest Gruyere, and the Boone’s Farm of art house. Yeah, it looks beautiful but so does a high class escort who’s mastered the art of facial contouring and wears the finest designer clothing that money can buy.
Throw rotten tomatoes at me, flame me, do what you will. I hate this film, will always hate it and cannot wait when the younger generation that loves it so much matures, shakes the cobwebs from its eyes, watches the movie again and goes, “Man, this is the shallowest piece of crap I’ve ever seen. What was I thinking?” and then moves on to bigger and better things.
Always hated it too. Especially Spacey’s character. And I loved Spacey at the time!
I like American Beauty a lot and think it’s a great film. But we can agree to disagree I guess.