To the list of movie characters who look back on their lives from the Beyond, add Lester Burnham, the 42-year-old, dead narrator of American Beauty. He is a murder victim–so it would seem, to judge from the very broad hints in the opening scene–done in by someone in his immediate circle; and so you might associate him with Joe Gillis of Sunset Boulevard. A nasty piece of business, that Joe: conniving, sarcastic and more than a little self-pitying, even when he’s floating face-down in Norma Desmond’s swimming pool. You can see why Lester, as a rough equivalent, might be played by Kevin Spacey, who with a dimpled smile can sing you whole arias of mortal insult, mezzo-piano legato.
But self-eulogists in American film do not always go in for the coruscating. Witness the maudlin self-pity of George Bailey, whose attempted suicide and subsequent nonexistence provide the framework for It’s a Wonderful Life.
The problem with American Beauty is that it traps Joe Gillis in George Bailey’s world. It plays to the audience’s lust for misbehavior–Kevin Spacey unloosed on suburbia!–while proposing that we all turn into angels when we die, and receive wings to the accompaniment of little tinkling bells.
Complexity, say quite a few of my colleagues. Lies, I say.
Written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, American Beauty begins with a Lester who is “dead already” while dwelling in his house with the white picket fence. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), a monster of color-coordinated decorum, is first shown snipping at her roses, in a gesture meant to imply that Lester’s drooping bud lies caught in her shears. His daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), first shown in sullen, semi-recumbent monologue, describes Lester as a “horny geek-boy” who ought to be “put out of his misery”–a misery she helps enforce by reminding him, at dinner, that he’s a loser who has nothing to say to her. “I am a loser,” Lester assures us in voiceover, just before we see him in his doorless cubicle at Media Monthly magazine, where he rewords press releases and calls the results journalism.
So far, American Beauty offers no more satirical insight than an episode of Married…With Children and considerably less than a Dilbert strip. The only gesture that escapes the conventions of sitcom or newspaper cartoon is a shot of Lester masturbating in his morning shower. With this as its sole stroke of authenticity, American Beauty introduces Lester’s primary goal: to renew himself by returning to adolescence.
The immediate cause of his regression–or is it a first symptom?–is a bad crush on Angela (Mena Suvari), his daughter’s best friend and cheerleading buddy. When Lester dreams of Angela, rose petals magically shower upon his face or float free from her loosened sweater–picturesquely, repeatedly, so you won’t miss the innocence of his desires or the pun in the movie’s title. If only the filmmakers had trusted in the eloquence of even a blank stare from Kevin Spacey! By letting his hard little button-eyes turn soft, he allows you to peer part of the way into that dark chamber where his words gather, rounding themselves, secreting heavy juices. They will roll from his lips smoothly but never in a hurry, leaving you to wonder, with some unease, at how Spacey’s extraordinary-sounding utterances ripen behind that smooth, bland face. Maybe, if you delved into the mystery of the process, you’d catch glimpses of a man like Lester Burnham, only more vital, angry, intelligent and hurt. Spacey seems willing to show you all that–but it’s apparently too much for Mendes and Ball. They’d rather move on quickly to the next picturesque moment and the next caricature.