I know, I know. “American Beauty is an incisive satire that looks at the stifling conformity of American suburbia with Kevin Spacey giving the definitive portrait of the male midlife crisis and blah blah blah blah blah blah.” Listen, American Beauty is a terrible film. I don’t care if it won a lot of Oscars, including the 1999 award for best picture. American Beauty is a shallow film that, at its worst, is deeply misogynistic.
American Beauty tells the story of two people. They’re married. They live in the suburbs. They have a teenage daughter who is a cheerleader. They pretend to have the perfect life but actually, everyone’s extremely unhappy.
WOW! OH MY GOD! PEOPLE ARE SECRETLY UNHAPPY IN THE SUBURBS!? MY MIND IS BLOWN! WOW, NO ONE’S EVER HAD THAT THOUGHT BEFORE! OH. MY. GOD!
Anyway, the husband is named Lester (Kevin Spacey). Lester’s a loser. He narrates the film and he’s played by Kevin Spacey so you’re supposed to think that he’s really this great guy who deserves better but honestly, Lester’s a whiny little jerk. He’s upset because, now that he’s an adult, he misses being a teenager. Life hasn’t turned out the way that he wanted it to. Boo hoo. As I said, Lester is kind of whiny but the film treats him like he’s an enlightened truth seeker. In order to keep the audience from realizing that Lester is a loser, the film surrounds him with one-dimensional stereotypes.
And really, Lester is the ultimate male fantasy. Everything that he says and thinks is wise. His every thought and feeling matters. To its discredit, the world has failed to recognize that Lester’s vapid thoughts are worthwhile. Lester quits his job and finds employment working in fast food. Lester fantasizes about fucking his daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari). Lester starts to smoke weed with his teenage neighbor (Wes Bentley). In real life, Lester would just be another pathetic guy having a midlife crisis but, in the world of American Beauty, he’s a seeker of truth,
Anyway, eventually, Lester gets shot in the back of the head and dies but that doesn’t keep him from still narrating the film. You just can’t shut him up.
Meanwhile, Lester’s wife is Carolyn (Annette Bening) and wow, is she evil! Get this — she actually tries to keep the house clean, is obsessive about her job, and wants her family to eat dinner together. Oh my God, so evil! She ends up having an affair with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and, when they have sex, we’re supposed to laugh at them because they’re so cartoonishly loud. And when Lester catches them, the audience is expected to applaud and say, “Way to go, Lester!” The film ridicules Carolyn’s affair but it idealizes Lester’s sexual fantasies. Lester’s determination to be independent and do what he wants is presented as being heroic. Carolyn’s determination to have a life that does not revolve around her pathetic husband is presented as being villainous.
And why is that?
Basically, it comes down to the fact that Lester has a penis whereas Carolyn has a vagina.
American Beauty is probably one of the most misogynistic films that I have ever seen, one in which men are exclusively victims of all those unreasonable and untrustworthy women. Whiny loser Lester is presented as being a hero. Ricky, the next door neighbor played by Wes Bentley, spends his time going on and on about the beauty of an empty bag and we’re supposed to see some sort of higher truth in his pretentious blathering. Meanwhile, Carolyn is portrayed as being a shrew. Lester’s teenager daughter (Thora Birch) is a spoiled brat. Lester’s sexual obsession, the cheerleader played by Mena Suvari, is presented as being a suburban seductress but, in the film’s eyes, she’s partially redeemed when she suddenly admits to being a virgin.
(The film seems to think that the revelation that teenagers lie about sex is truly shocking. This is one of those films that makes you wonder if the filmmakers have ever hung out with anyone outside of their own small circle of friends.)
One huge subplot deals with Ricky’s father, a military guy played by Chris Cooper, mistakenly believing that Lester is gay. And, honestly, American Beauty would have been a better film if Lester had been a gay man and if, instead of buying a new car and getting a crappy job, Lester had dealt with his identity crisis by coming out of the closet. Certainly, a lot of Lester’s anger would have made a lot more sense if he was a man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality as opposed to being a man who just doesn’t like his job and is upset that his wife no longer has the body of a 17 year-old.
(We are, of course, supposed to be shocked when Cooper suddenly reveals that he himself is gay. But, honestly, the film’s plans for Cooper are obvious from the minute he first appears on-screen and dramatically squints his eyes in disgust at the sight of two men jogging together. Cooper is a good actor but he’s terrible in American Beauty.)
It would have taken guts to make Lester gay and, at heart, American Beauty is a very cowardly film. It attacks easy targets and it resolutely refuses to play fair. So desperate is it to make Lester into a conventional hero that it refuses to let anyone around him be human. As a result, a talented cast is stuck playing a collection of one-note stereotypes. No wonder a lot of people love this film — it makes you feel smart without requiring that you actually think.
American Beauty was written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes. Both Ball and Mendes have subsequently done far better work, which is good because American Beauty is a terrible movie. The script is a pretentious mess and Mendes never seems to be quite sure what exactly he’s trying to say from scene-to-scene.
American Beauty did win best picture but who cares?
It’s a crappy film.