It tries. That's the best that can be said about American Beauty. But
anytime a film that purports to question a society gets whoops of praise
and awards from that society, it has to be asked if that film is not in
fact actually coddling the audience, instead of challenging it. American
Beauty tries to critique the quagmire of American society that it grows
out of, but inevitably ends up being soiled by it instead.
This is first and foremost a Backlash film (referring to Susan Faludi's
book) where Carolyn, the wife in the film, is a cliched, slamming portrayal
of what happens when a woman tries to compete in business--she of course
must be shown to have destroyed her relationship with her husband; she
must be full of self-hate and pitiful misery. We learn nothing about
this thin-as-cardboard character from the husband-wife confrontations
except that it is all her fault, that she somehow called a halt to their
sex life. Why is never asked, or what was the husband's part in this
matter that he would supposedly be an integral part of. And of course
the conclusion of her competition against her business rival is to
capitulate to the sexual level and go to bed with him. In fact, none
the female characters in this film are allowed to act on their own,
only to react to male characters. A film that really wanted to do
something different would have followed the two riot grrrls who pop up in
one high school scene making cutting comments, but no such luck.
The rest of the characters don't get much thickness added to them along
the way, either. For example, what exactly Ricky, the strange guy next
door, is supposed to be, is never resolved at all. Anyone who has known
or been a teenager in Ricky's shoes-- with a cold, hyper-disciplined
militaristic father who beats him and sends him to a mental institution,
and with an out-of-it (Prozac-whacked?) acquiescent mother--would know
that Ricky's detachment is completely superficial, and that there are
boiling emotions inside. Yet Ricky remains an absurdly serene figure
throughout the film, even after getting pummeled yet again by his father.
Either Ricky really IS the "psycho" that other characters label him,
someone with big emotional troubles pushed down so deep as to be a physical
danger to others or himself--a conclusion the film otherwise leads us
away from with its sympathetic portrayal--or, more likely, he is simply
a poorly drawn character. He has company in this film.
Speaking of Prozac, Hollywood is probably slapping itself on the back for
daring to depict a tolerant view of marijuana in a major film, but it
flubbed this one, too. It portrays pot as either a way to make bundles
of cash for the Ricky character, or a means to pure escapism/regression
for Lester. Through the Ricky character, pot is used to yet again reinforce
America's money-love mania and get-rich-quick fantasies, and through
Lester, pot is a magic release from all conflicts both inner and outer.
Really daring would have to been showing pot for what it is, an innocuous
if often lazy-making substance that is widespread throughout the
country--and maybe touching on the draconian drug laws that constantly
put everyday people in jail.
Of the many other repellent aspects of this film, here is a short list:
--What a condescending lie to show a minimum-wage fast-food job as breezy,
effortless or in any way comforting and humanizing work, as the film does
when middle-class Lester retreats to one.
--Middle-aged hero of the film Lester chooses not to have sex with his
daughter's teenage friend Angela simply because she's a virgin--not
because she's a troubled, unhappy, vulnerable wreck and a child.
--How many guys in the audience are just getting off on seeing Angela's
forbidden teenaged breasts and fantasizing about not stopping themselves?
--Is it at all believable that control-freak wife Carolyn would decide
to soberly and premeditatedly kill her husband and send herself to jail
for a couple decades?
--How horrible for the film to show Lester coolly inventing a
sexual-harassment case against his employer. It sneers at all the people
who have been harassed at work and try to get some justice done. Imagine
the same scene, but with a black man inventing racial slurs and attacks
at his workplace in order to get a free ride, to get a better idea of
how grotesque is this part of the film.
--Is anyone else tired of the white people in big houses thing?
--The film, having teetered in its trying, finally crashes to the side
of dreck with Lester's moment-of-death spiel of enlightenment, by telling
the audience what to think of what they have just seen, instead of letting
them ponder it for themselves. The spiel distracts from the
deadly-violence-in-America point of the film, and the accompanying images
are Hallmark-hokey (and how does he see himself in childhood memories
A few of the film's flaws could be explained away with the wide rose-colored
brush called Irony. This has become the term for weak humor or ugly
dichotomy that you must consider clever and intentional if you are to be
sophisticated. As an American observing the United States from afar,
I am beginning to realize the ways that the situation there
reinforces itself. This film is much more of a symptom of a culture than
a critique of one.