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.
So, under Angela’s spell, Lester transforms himself by jokey stages into a 42-year-old teenager, who spends many happy hours in the garage, working out with weights, smoking dope and listening to his Bob Dylan tapes. Through such exertions, he gains a teenager’s insight into the falsity of social conventions–an insight that he turns against his wife. Lester speechifies at her about the joy and spontaneity she’s lost; and to prove that his bud is no longer caught in those shears, he threatens her, too, tossing and smashing things as an assertion of manhood. I wish I could say that American Beauty presents this latter form of acting-out as an adolescent disorder. But while it treats Lester’s horniness as a shower of rose petals and his rages as occasions for liberating laughter, the film uses Carolyn principally as a target. Fans of the picture will no doubt object that Carolyn is given a moment of high-pitched self-hatred, shot in the head-on, tableau-vivant style that Mendes favors. But it’s hard for me to generalize that one gesture toward the character into an attitude of sympathy. American Beauty is unmistakably Lester’s film. He’s the complex one; Carolyn is merely grotesque.
What sort of transcendence does the film offer Lester (and the audience) at his wife’s expense? A greeting-card transcendence. The world is beautiful, says the daughter’s boyfriend Ricky (Wes Bentley), who serves as the picture’s moral center; and American Beauty is accordingly beautiful, thanks to cinematographer Conrad Hall. You might notice, for example, how the shadows seem to breathe when Ricky stands with Jane under a canopy of trees, or how Lester and Carolyn’s kitchen glows at night. Mendes, who is a first-time film director–he’s made his reputation in the theater, with productions such as Cabaret and The Blue Room–seems to lack any instinct for linking one shot to another. His camera placement is expressive only when formulaic (he knows when a cut to a long shot will get a laugh), and camera movement is simply beyond him. But by hiring Hall, he’s been able to buy good-looking images, in much the same way as American Beauty acquires for Lester, on the cheap, the peace that passeth understanding.
Am I being too hard on this film? I could think so, when I look back on Spacey’s performance. Toward the end, as the peace descendeth, someone asks him how he’s doing, and he replies, quietly and with surprise, “I’m great.” He makes it a genuinely touching moment. But then I think of the moments that immediately follow, with more overdrawn gestures from Mendes and Ball–more damned cleverness–and I feel as if the truth Spacey found has been swamped.
It’s swamped not in beauty but complacency. When Joe Gillis went to the Beyond in Sunset Boulevard, he recalled a life spent amid social change. (Silent movies went out of style; so did their stars, along with the customs and beliefs they embodied.) Even George Bailey, during his Capracorn meditations on a wonderful life, thought of how manners and economies and cityscapes may evolve. But the world of American Beauty is eternal, arrested at the end of history.
This is the satire and moral uplift you get when filmmakers can no longer conceive of a changing world. No wonder the satire is mere mockery, the uplift easy, the only hero left standing at the end of time an adolescent male.
* * *
However much Kevin Costner’s film The Postman was derided, I have to admit I found it loopily entertaining. It’s not every day that a movie resolves conflict by springing a lion from the bush to eat the star’s antagonist. Nor does every film work up to the swearing-in of a mail carrier as an emotional high point.
Those are the qualities I miss in the new film starring Costner, For Love of the Game: the unnecessary, the improbable, the cheerfully ridiculous. Written ploddingly by Dana Stevens, based on a novel by Michael Shaara, For Love of the Game is the story of Billy Chapel, star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, who has two crises dumped on his lap within the film’s first fifteen minutes. He is told he ought to retire, after nineteen years in the majors; and he learns that the woman he loves (Kelly Preston) is leaving permanently for England, so she can keep an ocean between herself and him.
Once these problems have been front-loaded, Billy can proceed to the day’s business, which is to pitch against the New York Yankees. You realize, with a sinking feeling, that the rest of the film–two hours’ worth–will be devoted to the game, inning by inning. When the Tigers are at bat and Billy sits in the dugout, you get flashbacks to his love affair, conducted in soft focus with a rosy glow. When the Yankees are at bat, Billy stands on the mound and gosh-darn pitches his heart out, one last time.
I learned from watching Tom Seaver that a great pitcher gets stronger as the game goes on. A bad movie gets weaker: more predictable, more pat. Everything you expect to happen in For Love of the Game actually does, right when you think it will, so that your only uncertainty is the degree to which Costner and Preston will be pushed to overact.
Why do they grimace so? I think the director, Sam Raimi, was showing his contempt for the material. A talented genre filmmaker who recently broke into new territory with A Simple Plan, he directs down to this movie, as if to say that if you’ve paid to watch this stuff, you must be a chump.
Stay home, and prove him wrong both ways.