It’s a fact that even when The Academy makes decisions that are ostensibly good they get flack for it. It happened with The Departed, The Lord of the Rings and with American Beauty. On the superficial level American Beauty (as the name suggests) is somewhat of an irreverent ode to America. Yet that doesn’t mitigate its relevance to the world’s populace. No other recent Best Picture winner (or nominee, even) has been as evocative of the times we live in. It sounds like a trite statement today, but as prosaic as Ball’s script it, it still exists an articulate representation of the changing values in our time, and yet American Beauty is more than that.
If memory serves me right, the moment that many remember most from American Beauty is the effusive image of the floating plastic bag. Excellent as it is, subtle is not the word I’d use to describe American Beauty. It is a pity that none of the cast members (save for Annette and Chris, to an extent) were able to follow up their performances here with better things. Wes Bentley’s performance as the intrepid loner, of sorts, gives the best performance that is not from Annette or Kevin. The blatancy of his artistic nature as indicated by his “movies” is a bit humouring, but it’s in keeping with the black comedic style of the entire film. American Beauty is so excellently obvious I’m never sure if it’s a farce or indicative of Greek Tragedy. To assess it from the ending I’m always surprised at how satisfying the ending is – even though we’ve lost our protagonist. I’m never sure if I should accuse the filmmakers of being too pat. What will happen to the living afterwards? Will Lester’s death really catapult an epiphany of sorts in Carolyn? I’m not sure, but Annette’s reaction to his death does cause me to wonder. She hasn’t been playing a stereotype throughout the film; she really does care for her family in that (perverse) way of hers.
I suppose, if I’m honest with myself, the entire film is working against her. Isn’t it? Spacey is excellent, and he has no trouble making us believe Lester because we see ourselves in each schmuck-like action he does. But few have as much self awareness to recognise the features of themselves in Carolyn. Take for example her line reading “There’s a lot about me that you don’t know, Mr. Smarty Pants.” It’s – in some ways where the metaphorical separation of Carolyn and Lester occurs. And as much as the script is working against her (do they have to make her seem like such a bitch? She just doesn’t want to destroy her couch.) she has no qualms about completely decimating Carolyn (even if the damage is only superficial). If any Annette scene sticks out in American Beauty (truthfully, they all do) it’s her manic monologue of sorts as she prepares to sell that house. In a film of obviously harrowing scenes this one sticks out as most disturbing. It’s more than the slaps, the faux cheerfulness or the repetitive monologue. The look in her eyes as she goes through it all is just scary.
I should try to avoid turning this piece into homage for Annette; she’s not the only radiance in the film. Although Kevin’s win is not completely loved, I’m a big fan. There’s an almost even split between Lester, the douche and Lester, the dick – and Kevin convinces me of both. One thing I always regret is that unlike Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, American Beauty is not as laced with prime episodes of rapport between the two leads. It’s when American Beauty reaches its peak for me. The two have such a splendid chemistry together. The thing with American Beauty is that it’s easy to miss its brilliance while we’re being caught up in the seeming triteness of it all. The machinations of the children are played so glibly we are almost fooled into believing it’s as mundane as they think. It’s the point of the film though, we’re supposed to know people like the Burnhams or Chris Cooper’s neurotic father. It’s a stereotype he takes and turns into something almost special.
I wouldn’t say that I’m biased towards American Beauty. I’m as aware of its faults as I am of its merits, but I adore it still. As aware as I am of its blunders I’ll still maintain that it’s almost perfect. Mendes has become underrated as the years have gone by, and so as the film, but I continue to be a fan.