American Beauty is the kind of filmgoing experience that eludes rating systems. It’s as predictable as it is surprising, an occasionally entrancing, frequently annoying and finally overwhelming case study in human frailty that turns out to be just as frail as the humans it depicts — and all the more fascinating for it. In sixteen years, it has aged terribly yet hasn’t aged at all, and a reasonable case could be made for giving it either two or five stars. I’m going with four because more than that would be unfair and less would be insincere, but I can’t recall another film to which the amount of stars given was of less significance.
Stars, it pays to remember, are just stuff. I don’t think this movie is above qualification, but it is so adamant in its appeal to subjectivity that it all but begs you not to step back and pick it apart. Most fiction aims for certain preordained emotional or intellectual responses; American Beauty appears to fall into that box for a good deal of its running time, but in the end, the accumulation of its manipulative moments seems deliberately designed to elicit a different response in each viewer. Yes, we can all sympathize with its investigation of grace and happiness in a hopelessly imperfect world, but that investigation is done in a way that keeps the highest common factor at a minimum, perhaps because director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball realize that the titular beauty is inherently relative.
Consider Wes Bentley’s character. A shell-shocked, perfectly incoherent weirdo, he walks around with a camcorder in hand, filming everything and everyone with no regard for privacy, because he believes that his pursuit of everyday allure is more important than whatever mundane limitations he’s transgressing. In one way, he seems to be the embodiment of the movie’s ethos, but, even discounting his social difficulties, there’s something off about his beliefs: he speaks of a dying homeless woman as if she were a double rainbow whose suffering is meant to give him chills, and, for all his talk of appreciating the hidden beauty of things, he’s so quick to dismiss a girl he doesn’t like as boring and ordinary that you’d think the poor creature was a cardboard cutout. The script presents his immaturity bluntly enough to leave no doubt about it, but it’s never interested in judging or even questioning him. Ultimately, he’s another messed-up piece in the narrative’s mosaic of clashing worldviews, and we’re free to be moved by his thoughts or repelled by his actions as we see fit; to find our own beauty, so to speak, in his pain and his coping.
In that way, he really is an embodiment of the filmmakers’ mission, not as a mouthpiece so much as a synecdoche. American Beauty wants to be the archetypal “story about the human condition,” and it’s made by people who really want you to know that our flaws are as important as our virtues. Which, to be fair, may be a bit of a self-serving point, depending on whether you consider the film’s slovenliness to be a deliberate meta-defense of its own principles or a plain old case of clumsy execution. I’m not sure where I stand on that matter, but, like I said, that doesn’t matter much. It’s better to simply accept American Beauty for what it is, and it is something of a beautiful mess.
That’s why it’s perfectly possible to celebrate its affirmation of life without ignoring, say, the intermittent artificiality that seems to diminish its understanding of said life, or to admire its titanic ambition while acknowledging that some of Mendes and Ball’s flourishes are simply too much. (Case in point: the in media res opening, which creates some suffocating tension, then never pays off.) This is the rare movie in which the protagonist is someone you can simultaneously root for and roll your eyes at, and all the other characters are attended to with the same balance of acidity and empathy. It’s a movie that begins full of promise, slogs through a trite first act, throws itself into an inconsistent middle portion, comes together amazingly in its final minutes and ends on the smuggest final line ever written. I don’t know if a leaner, less arrogant, more incisive picture would have been necessarily preferable to this one. I do know that the crew and cast have accomplished something unique and worth examining.
Especially the cast. Where Ball falters as a writer, the actors consistently rise to the occasion, turning even the most dated of stereotypes — Chris Cooper’s angry dad is transparent from the moment he first appears — into striking tragic figures. The highlight is Annette Bening, whose nagging wife is benefited the most by the film’s eventual upgrade from shallow cultural satire to sprawling character study; Bening masterfully takes her from a man’s emasculating suburban nightmare on two legs to a layered, heartbreaking individual.
The only one whose performance doesn’t ring entirely true is, as it should be, Kevin Spacey himself; Lester Burnham is one of the defining characters of the ’90s less because of his complexity and more because of his improbability. Unlike his fellow cast members, Spacey doesn’t try to ground his character; he plays him exactly as he is written, a passive-aggressive, scenery-chewing, perpetually baffled everyman who communicates mostly through sarcasm and fits of rage. A lot of the time, it’s a marvel to behold, such as when he attends a fancy party and can barely disguise his contempt for everyone in attendance, but it mostly comes through as a jarring deviation from the rest of the ensemble’s more natural acting. That’s not a bad thing, only a strange one, and Lester’s larger-than-life persona ends up making him the ideal man to headline this strange film — not least because, to Spacey’s credit, the character’s hammy exterior never keeps us from seeing his agonizing spirit.
The bottom line here seems to be that, no matter how much we try to disguise it, everyone can’t help but go through the motions, and we might as well own up to that because hey, that’s beautiful. Or maybe it isn’t; it really depends on whether you’re the soulful teenager or the dying homeless woman. Sam Mendes is a little bit of both, and there are moments in American Beauty that stir the soul regardless of which perspective you favor, even if they are a little lost amid the mishmash. It’s funny, really, how he’s almost accidentally made a movie that’s kind of exactly like life.