American Beauty
Alan Ball and Sam Mendes, 1999
#16, 1999 Skandies

Some people have asked me why I've been watching Skandie winners instead of, say, Oscar nominees. To answer that question, look at what happened in 1999. First place on the Skandie list went to Being John Malkovich. The Oscar went to this piece of shit.

It seems to me that there are two thought processes that could have resulted in a movie like American Beauty. One is this: "In the real world, everyone thinks I am a creep. They fail to recognize that in fact I rule. Thus I will create a fictional world in which they pay me my rightful due." The other is this: "Oh, intense dude with no social skills who everyone thought was a creep! How I admired you from afar as I stared at you over the top of my well-thumbed copy of Stranger in a Strange Land! Only I recognized that in fact you rule! Thus I will create a fictional world in which people pay you your rightful due. And... maybe, this time, you might take me under your wing?"

We begin with the Burnhams, a cartoon family is suburban Chicago. Lester is an over-the-top emasculated loser, daughter Jane is an over-the-top bratty "you guys are embarrassing me!" teenager, and wife Carolyn is a mile-over-the-top, so-far-over-the-top-that-you-can't-see-the-top-from-here, grotesquely caricatured harpy — Annette Bening gives a performance that makes Uma Thurman's work in Batman & Robin seem like a finely nuanced character study. But then, who moves in next door but — wait, filmmakers, don't start sucking his dick yet, I haven't finished introducing him — Ricky Fitts!

Lester refers to Ricky as his "personal hero," and the screenwriter and director seem to agree. Oh, sure, they throw in a clever misdirect, making Ricky initially seem like a creep: he skulks around videotaping girls without their consent, and we quickly learn that he's also a fairly big-time drug dealer. The clever part comes in when it turns out that girls actually like being peeped at and that drug dealers are America's greatest heroes. The only thing that makes this twist slightly less clever is that in real life these things aren't actually true. I know, next I'll be dissing cannibalism.

Ricky goes to high school with Jane and her friend Angela Hayes (get it? get it? angel plus Dolores Haze? get it?). Angela is an over-the-top shallow wannabe model. Her purpose where Ricky is concerned is to represent the shallow conventional society that just doesn't get what a badass new god he is. Jane's purpose is to show that worthy girls can't wait to rip their clothes off for voyeuristic peddlers of narcotics who look like fucking Sylar. Of course, first Jane must be made worthy through listening to Ricky's teary-eyed talk of the beauty of dead birds and plastic bags.

I remembered the plastic bag speech as the quintessence of "dude, have you ever noticed how fingers and toes are so similar and yet so different?" stoned non-wisdom, but it turns out that the speech is even worse than I remembered:

"It's one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air. You can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just... dancing... with me... like a little kid begging me to play with it... for fifteen minutes. And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever."

See, the bag can't just be dancing — it has to be dancing with Ricky. It must come begging to Ricky as a supplicant. When I heard this speech I started to think, "Dude, it's not about you" — but, of course, it is. Ricky does live in a world with an incredibly benevolent force behind it. That force is the filmmakers' collective hard-on for him. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox in the Total Perspective Vortex, he has discovered that the entire universe in which he finds himself was engineered for his benefit.

Carolyn Burnham would likely not find that force so benevolent. Her role in the world of the film is the opposite of Ricky's: it is to be humiliated over and over again. It's sort of interesting how this works. At first, Carolyn is humiliated by the filmmakers directly, such as when they invite us to gawk at her private preparations for attempting to sell a house. But then Lester goes to a party and becomes one of Ricky's acolytes. This puts him on the side of the filmmakers, who can now work their will through Lester. He can rail at her, mock her as frigid, and grin at his triumph, as the filmmakers signal the audience to grin along with him — bitch had it comin', right? He can also roar at his daughter — remember, she hasn't taken her top off for Ricky yet, so she too gets classed as a frigid bitch who has it comin' — and then for good measure he can demonstrate his newfound masculinity by getting violent and hurling dishes at the wall. Awesome! Apparently the folks who made this movie disagree with me about Pattern 20, "piñatas don't make good characters." Because there's a scene in which Carolyn is shot from the most ridiculous angle possible — feet in the air, face out of view, "gettin' nailed" by a smarmy guy with eyebrows very nearly as disturbing as Ricky Fitts's — and I'm pretty sure that a bunch of those little Krackel bars were spilling out of the gash they've beaten into her side.

Cut to Lester crooning, "American woman, stay away from me." Subtle! He's having a cartoon version of a midlife crisis: quitting his job, smoking a lot of pot, buying an old sports car, and working out to look good for the ladies, or teenage girls as the case may be. We may begin to wonder what the filmmakers are driving at here — are we really supposed to cheer on this pathetic display? — but they then verify that, yes, we are, trotting out Angela to offer up her most valuable treasure to him. For once you've fallen under the tutelage of Ricky Fitts, y'know, chicks just can't help but beg you to fuck them. For some reason we never see Ricky teach Lester to make packets of cigarettes float through the air with his mind, though. Must be one of those deleted scenes.

Mena Suvari, whose breasts basically constitute the climax of American Beauty, recently got a big ugly tattoo of the number 13 in the middle of her chest. Criticker's rating system runs from 0 to 100. If she thinks I'm giving her movie anything nearly so high as a 13, she's sadly mistaken.
Elizabeth often complains, and rightly so, about a trend in movies that some blog post she read called the "because, um...?" phenomenon. These movies put forth an unattractive schlub and then have a woman way, way out of his league throw herself at him despite the fact that in addition to being an unattractive schlub he is also a loutish, misogynistic asshole. Because, um...? And the answer, generally, is that the filmmakers feel that dudes like themselves deserve to get laid. But even the sorts of people who see themselves in these schlubs, and thus find this sort of thing an appealing fantasy, tend to require a few crumbs of story logic to justify these unlikely pairings. And so we get last-minute redemptions — the dude does one little thing that isn't entirely obnoxious and the hapless lassie gets hearts in her eyes. Now, we don't have exactly the same thing here. The entire movie is about Lester's evolution from bitter nebbish to arrested adolescent capable of landing Angela Hayes — because, hey, if there's one thing we can all agree on about arrested adolescence, it's that chixdiggit — and so there's no need to throw in a last-minute twist to explain why a 17-year-old cheerleader would get all soaked over Baldy McMeatface. Instead, the filmmakers set themselves a somewhat more lofty task: sure, they've spent the last two hours portraying the women of the movie as loathsome objects of ridicule, but now that the credits are in sight they want us to love everybody. So, here's slutty Angela as a trembling virgin, here's obnoxious Jane as a fairy princess with a sparkler, here's Carolyn the harridan having a blast on the tilt-a-whirl. Here's Lester, too noble to deflower the cheerleader, waxing lyrical about the beauty of the world. (Ricky of course needs no redemption, for he is the Way, the Truth, and the Light.) But it's too late, dudes. Your movie was irredeemable long before you hit page 97 of the script.

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