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American Beauty (1999)

Three of the best films from 1999 — The Matrix, Fight Club, and American Beauty — have a lot in common.  All three are, in different ways, about suburban angst, about questioning the safe, comfortable existence of modern day middle class Americana and thirsting for something more — more real, more authentic, more joyful or painful.  More something, or maybe more anything.  It’s interesting to me that, two years before the events 0f 9/11 shook us to the core, we were making and celebrating movies about people being shaken out of their stupor.

“American Beauty” was the most celebrated of the three movies I mentioned.  It was a darling of the festival circuit, won lots of awards, culminating in an Academy Award for Best Picture, along with four other Oscar nominations.  But it hasn’t held up well over time, and now it’s easily my least favorite of the three.

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening play an unhappily married couple, alienated from each other by contempt and disappointed expectations.  Spacey lusts after his daughter (Thora Birch)’s cheerleader friend, Mena Suvari.  When he gets laid off from his job, he’s able to blackmail his boss into continuing to pay him, but now he has lots of free time on his hands, which he invests into acting like a teenager – the last time he can remember being happy.  He buys the car he’s always wanted, he sets up a weight bench in his garage, and he smokes pot and reads dirty magazines.  Meanwhile his wife takes out her frustration by starting an affair with a fellow real estate agent, and his daughter is drawn to the odd boy next door, who doesn’t seem to care what anybody thinks, and videotapes everything he sees.

The biggest problem with “American Beauty” is that it starts out shrill and just gets shriller as it goes.  Everyone is screaming at everyone else from the moment the film starts.  There’s hardly anywhere to build to.  It’s like listening to emo – the verses are so intense, the choruses have to be screamed to top them, and it all gets pretty tiresome pretty fast.   On top of that, the odd boyfriend (played by Wes Bentley) is the only character who seems to be happy, but his happiness seems so trite and shallow (really, we’re supposed to see beauty in a plastic bag tossed about by the wind?) that it gets completely overwhelmed by all the angst in the film, which rings more true.  Ultimately, “American Beauty” feels like a petulant teenager of a film, the kind of teen who enjoys complaining about how terrible the world is more than actually tackling the problems of finding happiness and/or fulfillment.  I loved this film when it first came out; perhaps I was that petulant teenager (ish – I was 22)  in 1999.   By now,  it just feels shrill and tiresome.

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