American Beauty (1999) is about a discontent suburbanite whose go-getter wife and truculent daughter disdain him, and who falls in love with his daughter’s beautiful best friend. It involves some other folks too, among them a harsh Marine officer who is a repressed homosexual. Whoa! Bad idea, you say? Yes, it is; as hoary as it is cheap. The Marine’s homophobia is frowned on, his “reactionary” love of discipline scorned. He must be made to pay. Curiously, however, his dope-pushing, dope-smoking son receives the filmmakers’ sympathy (though, in fairness, his father receives some too) and is never made to pay.
Homosexuality, though, is not a major subject here. Heterosexuality is. The heterosexual lives, that is, of the characters played by Kevin Spacey (the discontent suburbanite), Annette Bening, Thora Birch, et al. While watching the film I thought another subject it was about was the folly of the American dream, but not exactly. It makes the point that this dream is not such a folly after all, that it is perhaps . . . one of the beauties of America? In my view the beauty of the American dream goes only so far, but in any event, whatever is being said, the movie’s conclusion doesn’t cut it: it’s both rosy and stupidly implausible. It doesn’t convince us of the goodness of the American dream. It merely confirms that the film has gone awry.
Though deeply blemished, American Beauty does have its assets. What with Sam Mendes‘s bright direction, Conrad Hall’s flawless cinematography, and Thomas Newton’s eccentric yet restrained music, it tries to be art. Many images are superbly sensuous, and not just the sexy ones. The technicians here knew what they were doing; the screenwriter, Alan Ball, didn’t. His script’s profundity is nil.
If you want an inoffensive, non-tendentious opus about an unhappy married man who falls for a teenage girl, read John Cheever’s story, “The Country Husband.” It is five times as appealing as American Beauty, for all its dandy visuals.