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I Liked This In College: American Beauty

In I Liked This In College, Jeff rewatches a movie that he once adored to see how it holds up now that he’s a pretentious blogger.

Your life sucks and you're lame.

Why I Liked American Beauty: Last week in the comment thread of my Oscars Predictions post, a brief discussion broke out about American Beauty. I found myself wanting to defend Sam Mendes’ Best Picture winning film, but I couldn’t figure out how to go about it. Honestly, I didn’t remember why I liked it.

Unlike other movies that I’ve written about for this column, I don’t remember any specifics about my first viewing of AmBeau. I rented it. Probably watched it alone in my room. Later, I went out and bought a copy. In my college days, I used to spend (conservatively) 50% of my income at Best Buy on DVDs. I amassed a collection the majority of which now collects dust boxed up in my aunt’s garage. When I moved to New York in 2006, knowing I’d be sharing a one bedroom apartment with another notorious DVD collector, I decided to bring only a couple dozen DVDs with me. AmBeau was one of those selections.

Why did it make the cut?

"I hate dinner!"

Just the other day I thought, shit, I wish I’d brought Once Upon a Time in Mexico to New York with me. I’d really like to watch that part where blind Johnny Depp slays a bunch of dudes. I’ve never thought anything similar about AmBeau. "Man, I’d really like to watch that scene where Kevin Spacey throws his dinner against the wall!" That’s never crossed my mind.

I shudder to think that I might have added AmBeau to my DVD collection as some kind of prestige pick. I’ll admit as a high school student on into my college years that I attached more value to the Oscars than they probably deserve. Looking at the Best Picture winners from those years (1997-2005), the selections are despairingly bleak, ranging from overrated (Gladiator, Return of the King) to innocuous (A Beautiful Mind, Titanic) to outright deplorable (Crash). With AmBeau did I feel that, for once, the straight-laced adults at The Academy had gotten it right?

Something else must have resonated about the film. Although it’s the obvious choice, I can say with some certainty that it was not Wes Bentley’s angsty teenage artist that struck a chord. Thanks to Bentley’s character I got my first taste of pretension induced mouth-barf, something I’ve become even more familiar with since moving to New York.  Bentley’s character’s short film where a plastic bag is blown around by the wind (MEANINGFULLY) is oft-parodied for a reason. Because it’s nauseatingly lame.

Really, what I most remember liking is Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham. I don’t know why eighteen-year-old me would sympathize with a middle-aged suburbanite going through a midlife crisis, but I did. What concerns me now, going into this rewatch of AmBeau, is that I might not anymore. From what I remember, Burnham is suffering from a chronic case of what’s known as White People Problems. Having grown up a bit, I’m not sure if I’ll still find that interesting, or worth my sympathy.

It has been at least 7 years since I last watched American Beauty.

The bane of Jeff's existence.

What I Think After The Rewatch: I realize now that enjoying American Beauty while simultaneously disliking Wes Bentley’s Ricky Fitts is impossible. The film, the character, and their philosophy are inseparable. AmBeau feels like something Ricky might have written during his freshman screenwriting seminar at NYU. I realize that’s an odd statement to make considering screenwriter Alan Ball was in his forties when he wrote this, but throughout my rewatch of AmBeau I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had been penned by an intelligent, well-intentioned, but ultimately naïve 19-year-old.

I mentioned the infamous plastic bag scene in the opening, but I’m drawn back to it because it’s actually more insufferable than I remembered. Please, Ricky, explain to me how there’s so much beauty in the world, we just have to open our eyes and look around. Barf! Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if, after Ricky finished his speech about the benevolent forces of beauty caving in his heart, another character took a deep breath and said to him:

“Dude, stop trying so hard to get laid.”

Mendes and Ball don’t dare undercut Ricky with anything so self-aware. Every interaction in AmBeau is filtered through Ricky’s pretentious lens (always metaphorically, often literally). This eighteen year old amateur filmmaker just gets it, man. We aren’t supposed to question his philosophy, which is also the central philosophy of the film. There aren’t any chinks in Ricky’s armor. When he cruelly dispatches Mena Suvari’s vapid Angela (for the crime of, um, acting like a teenager), the moment is supposed to be triumphant. He calls her ugly, boring, and ordinary. And here I thought the Tao of Ricky was finding beauty in the ordinary. Instead, “ordinary” becomes the profoundest of insults.

Well, I find you boring and ordinary, Ricky Fitts. You’re a freaking teenager!

The Fitts Philosophy becomes even more juvenile when applied to Lester Burnham. The suburban male suffering existential malaise is as old as the suburbs themselves. From Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate to Nicolas Cage in The Weather Man, cinema has a rich history of white men trying to figure their shit out. The difference between Lester and, I’d argue, almost every other bored suburban male in film history is that whereas those characters come to realize flaws in themselves that need fixing, Lester only begins gleefully pointing out the flaws in others.

It's important to have goals.

Back in college, I remember thinking of Lester as a hero – standing up to his shrew wife, quitting his soul-crushing job, doing whatever the hell he wanted. During this viewing, he struck me as an asshole. His only efforts at self improvement are directed toward the goal of bagging a hot high school cheerleader. Admirable, I suppose, but what am I supposed to root for? He’s smug, mean, and not nearly as clever as I remembered. He’s regressed to the level of teenager, railing against the forces of suckiness that surround him, lashing out in the pettiest ways possible.

Granted, there’s some redemption for Lester during his admittedly affecting scenes with Angela. He starts to act like an adult human being after that and, as a reward, gets his head blown off by Chris Cooper’s closeted-homophobe-plot-device (I won’t even get into his character, or the preposterous scene where Cooper mistakes joint-rolling for a blow job). Of course, this leads to the nadir of Ricky’s aesthetic appreciation where he crouches down, cocks his head, and basks in the remarkable beauty of the exploded skull of his girlfriend’s father.

So relatable.

Maybe I’d have enjoyed this rewatch more if Mendes and Ball shaded their philosophy with a little more gray. They don’t. You either get it, like Ricky or Lester, or you’re a square like Angela or Carolyn Burnham, destined to ignorantly suffer a dull, unfulfilling existence. I don’t buy it. Life is way more complex than that. Sorry, Ricky. You're a tool.

Wow. So what did we learn here? That I feel threatened by teenagers that think they’re smarter than me? That I’m too cynical to find any beauty in the world? I don’t want my rejection of American Beauty’s philosophy to serve as a total rejection of the film – the performances are solid (especially Annette Bening), Mendes has a talented eye, and the first hour (right up until the plastic bag) is interesting and nuanced enough to be worthy of its accolades. However, AmBeau eventually becomes so swept up in its bullshit philosophy and its desperate strivings for profundity that it becomes hard to watch. I have complicated feelings going on here.

Do I Still Like It? If I have to choose one side or the other – and I do, because those are the rules I made for this column – then no. I don’t like American Beauty anymore.

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5 Responses »

  1. shit film, its always sucked and........not enough tits.

  2. Once Upon a Time in Mexico, now that is a great movie. The rarest of sequels that is not only better than the movie that precedes it, but it actually makes the previous movie better. OUTM takes the violent folk tale to the appropriately epic extreme, and Desperado becomes a simple, unassuming, mood-setting prologue.

  3. This was a fun read. American Beauty can DIAF.

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