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Topic: American Beauty Was Bad 20 Years Ago

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American Beauty Was Bad 20 Years Ago

In 2019, beating up on Sam Mendes’ multi-Oscar-winning American Beauty, released roughly 20 years ago this week, is so painfully easy that it seems unfair. The Best Picture winner has fallen largely out of fashion; it rarely appears on critics’ lists of favorite movies, and its memory seems to have faded for most moviegoers, too.To get more news about Japanese porn, you can visit our official website.
But in 1999, you were an outlier if you disliked the picture, while professing admiration for it was a way of announcing that you were hip to the modern American malaise—whatever, exactly, that was. As screenwriter Alan Ball put it in a 2000 interview, “It’s becoming harder and harder to live an authentic life when we live in a world that seems to focus on appearance.” Even though, by that time, we’d supposedly thrown off the rigid social expectations of the 1950s, Ball noted that “in a lot of ways this is just as oppressively conformist a time.”

Ball wasn’t completely wrong. But what, exactly, is an “authentic life,” and how was partaking of the American Beauty experience supposed to help you live one? American Beauty was a bad movie then, and it’s bad now: Kevin Spacey plays middle-aged suburban husband Lester Burnham, with a good but boring job, who recognizes how empty his life is when he develops an obsession—one he almost acts upon—with his teenage daughter’s school friend, played by Mena Suvari. The debut film of director Sam Mendes (who’d already made his name in the theater world), American Beauty was crafted in the most pristine and soulless way, manicured and buffed to bland tastefulness; it’s one of the most laughably square movies about the destructiveness of conformity ever made.

Characters are saddled with moony faux-philosophical dialogue (“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it”) or signpost language loaded with portent (“All I know is I love firing this gun!”). Generally phenomenal actors give performances as tortured as sailors’ knots: Annette Bening, as Lester’s wife, Carolyn, is a shrill, brittle, sexually repressed mom and real-estate agent, a cartoon stretched to the max. As menacing neighbor Colonel Fitts, Chris Cooper signals “uptight marine” by merely looking constipated. Spacey brings all the edgy anxiety and brittleness his role demands of him, but not even he can negotiate the movie’s unearned “Gosh, life is beautiful after all!” shift, which swerves at us out of nowhere. And the movie’s visuals practically beg for banal student-term paper analysis. Crimson American Beauty roses arranged stiffly in bowls throughout the house, in nearly every scene; a gleaming red front door that’s the only distinguishing characteristic of a house exterior that’s otherwise numbingly restrained; a scarlet blood splatter against a pristine white wall: Block that color symbolism!

Many critics adored American Beauty upon its release, and some surely stand by it today. But mostly, it appears to be one of those movies-with-a-message that people like, or say they like, because it seems like the right stance to take at the time. Maybe it’s more valuable now, 20 years on, as a way of examining what attracts us to certain movies in the first place. Even when movies are not very good—despite how hard they may try to impress us with their labored artistry—they can be a kind of altar where we leave our vague, unspecified feelings of dissatisfaction or unrest. In 1999, the American economy was healthy; job growth was robust, and investors were optimistic. When you don’t have a job at all, your joblessness is your number-one problem. But when you have a good job, you can be nagged by the feeling that it just isn’t enough—it’s a luxury you can afford. And that not-having-enough is the disquiet from which Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, suffers.
Lester is in his early 40s and lives in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. But he’s not just asking himself “How did I get here?” He seems to be pushing for a way out. His teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), barely speaks to him, and their relationship grows icier when she catches on to the erotic crush he has on her friend Angela (Suvari), a lissome, flirty cheerleader who knows exactly why men like her—though she’s also plagued with real-teenager insecurities, and even though she acts as if she’s ready for sex, she’s really not. A new family moves in next door: Dad is Cooper’s uptight, abusive colonel; he’s clearly driven his wife, Barbara (Allison Janney), into catatonia. And his son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), a loner oddball and secret pot dealer with a penchant for surveillance, becomes obsessed with Jane, observing (and recording) her from next door. She’s creeped out at first; then she realizes she kind of likes him, and they begin a romance. None of that happens until well into the film, but the movie opens with a snapshot of the time they’ll eventually spend together: She’s lounging on the bed, complaining about her father. Ricky asks, jokingly or maybe not, “Want me to kill him for you?” She sits up like a suddenly alert cat. “Yeah. Would you?”

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