Saturday, January 17, 2009

Look Closer...

The self-induced plight of suburban sheeple came up recently in conversation with an old friend and turned, inevitably, to thoughts of mortality, of lives fulfilled and lives wasted, of the noble quest for meaning and purpose in this tired, old world. No good conversation would be complete without a double shot of scabrous satire and black comedy to leaven such solemn thoughts. This led naturally enough to the discovery of our mutual admiration for director Sam Mendes’ freshman effort, the disturbing yet darkly humorous American Beauty.

Hard to believe the picture is almost 10 years old, though its message is timeless.

So let’s roll back the clocks and look closer at the last Best Picture winner of the 20th Century.

American Beauty

Directed by Sam Mendes. Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Peter Gallagher and Chris Cooper. Screenplay by Alan Ball.

The pitch: A man hobbled by a mid-life crisis and a nightmarish family channels his depression into lust for a teen-age girl.

Yes, and there’s so much more. A jet-black satire of suburbia, this cautionary fable with a grim, inevitable climax features a stunning performance from Spacey, as the 42-year-old advertising man Lester Burnham who hates his job and shrewish wife (Bening). Seldom does a film spew such venom, or offer such a myopic and pessimistic worldview, only to shatter our expectations with a glimmer of hope and a genuine warning at the end. In terms of metaphor, as social commentary and, yes, as art, American Beauty was the most challenging film of 1999, prompting controversy and conversation. Nearly a decade on, the constant, symbolic use of the color red is enough to fuel many a late-night discussion, long after the credits roll. Look again at the now-iconic image of young Mena Suvari writhing on a bed of American Beauty rose petals.

In my original review of the film after its September 1999 opening, I predicted Oscar® nominations for Spacey and Bening, first-time film director Mendes, for the incredible script by television writer Alan Ball (Cybill) and certainly for the picture itself. (My forecast came true for all except Bening, who lost to Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry. Cruel fate revisited Bening five years later when she again lost to Swank; this time for Million Dollar Baby).

American Beauty Plot Synopsis:

Watching his daughter’s best friend Angela (Suvari) perform her cheerleading routines, Lester Burnham discovers a fire in his loins and a passion for life that has been missing for two decades. When he sees Angela strut, her arms snaking over her lithe body, it’s lust at first sight. But Lester also feels a renewed interest in life that has little to do with sex.

Don’t dismiss this as just another Lolita tale, although it bears more than passing resemblance to Nabokov’s most famous novel. American Beauty is that rare flower in American film – a major-studio (Dreamworks) production with A-list stars tackling material that many daredevil independents might hesitate to touch. The picture works the same territory as Todd Solondz’s repugnant film Happiness, except here the characters are treated with compassion and a degree of humanity in spite of their weaknesses.

As the film opens, we learn Lester is already dead. He narrates in flashback, a technique reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard. And it works. Discovering how Lester will die is critical to the suspense of the heartbreaking final reel. Lester explains his fall and ultimate redemption in the cynical-comical narration that punctuates key moments in the film. In fact, he says it all:

“In a year, I would be dead. In a way, I already was.”

His character is a loser whose career is stagnating in an office cubicle. His wife, a real-estate saleswoman, and their teen-age daughter (Birch) despise him for no reason other than he is socially awkward. Lester doesn’t even seem to like himself, though he masturbates in the shower before work and declares pathetically that it will be “the highlight of my day.”

His wife would rather tend to her blood-red roses, framing the white-picket fence around their well-appointed home. She is so obsessive-compulsive, so driven in her pursuit of perfection, that her pruning shears are color-coordinated with her clogs. She worries that Lester might spill a beer on her $4,000 sofa upholstered in Italian silk. Bening is mesmerizing in the role.

Lester’s daughter is embarrassed for him as he stumbles out the door, spilling the papers in his briefcase on the sidewalk.

The man knows something is missing from his life. When he meets the teen-age sexpot Angela, his brain begins to boil. He fantasizes encounters with the girl, reclining on a bed of rose petals. He quits his job, extorts $60,000 from his hateful boss and buys a 1971 fireapple-red muscle car. American Woman by the Guess Who blares on the stereo as he drives home. He wails along with the anthem, closing his eyes and nodding happily with nostalgia when that serpentine guitar solo kicks in (this film deals brilliantly in subtext).

Soon, he’s pumping iron in the garage, after he eavesdrops on Angela telling his daughter that her dad would be hot if he had a little more muscle tone.

At a business party, while his wife flirts with the local king of home sales (a slick, silver-haired Peter Gallagher), Lester sneaks out of the noxious gathering to smoke a joint in the alley with the waiter (Bentley), a strange kid who has just moved in to Lester’s neighborhood. He’s the creepy teenager next door.

The teenager has his own obsessions. He videotapes Lester’s daughter from his bedroom and slowly, shyly, begins an awkward romance with the troubled girl. He also sells high-quality pot and hides this enterprise from his abusive, homophobic ex-Marine father (Cooper). The boy has to provide urine samples to his brutal dad every six months, ever since he was busted for dealing. His mother has been so brow-beaten by her husband that she can only stare at the wall and make apologies for a house that is already spotless. Bentley portrays a brooding teen, biding his time for a chance to leave home. And although he professes to love all the beauty in the world, in his piercing stare we sometimes catch a glimpse of Columbine madness.

Director Mendes propels these miserable characters on a collision course, then casually introduces a gay couple who live down the street. Theirs is the only healthy and enduring relationship in the film (and is perhaps a pointed barb at mainstream America, as screenwriter Alan Ball is openly gay).

The gay couple’s chance encounter with Lester and later, with the baleful Cooper, triggers a series of comic misunderstandings between the core characters. The confusion escalates with frightening speed into violence and mind-numbing tragedy on a thunderous, rain-splattered night, punctuated by a mournful Annie Lennox on the soundtrack: “Old man lying by the side of the road /With the lorries rolling by / Blue moon sinking from the weight of the load / And the buildings scrape the sky…Don’t let it bring you down....”

Lester and his teen-age obsession, Angela, exchange unforgettable words that will leave even the most jaded viewer reeling. Lester’s closing monologue, indeed, his final words, will haunt us long after the lights come up and we are left to ponder -- as if his words were not enough -- that richly symbolic use of red. Is it the color of jealousy and hate? Perhaps the color of redemption?

Or is it the color of love?

Rated R for sexuality, nudity, familial violence, pervasive language and drug use.

Copyright © 1999-2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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