In the 1950s, in American culture, there arose a wonderfully enticing theory, expressed in four words: Sex will save you. If you don't care about your job and can't do it well, if you hate the politicians running your country, if your friends are boring, if your parents annoy you -- well, sex will save you. It will bring meaning as well as pleasure to your life. In the 1950s, the paperback of Lady Chatterley's Lover arrived from England, Alfred Kinsey's hoked-up sexology surveys spread through the population, and Hugh Hefner made his soft-porn magazine respectable by devising the Playboy Philosophy. They all carried the same message: You'll be fine if you just have good sex.
Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, may be the last character on Earth to hold this view, but he holds it with a passion. He's the hero of American Beauty, which last week was nominated for eight Academy Awards. American Beauty is a 1950s satiric melodrama, jerked out of its own period and placed in the present. Lester is the victim of a loveless marriage and a soulless corporation. He works for an advertising trade magazine (in the 1950s guys like Lester always worked in advertising) and of course he lives a miserable, constricted life in the suburbs. Who would have guessed that there was another movie in suburb-baiting?
Lester is a self-hating hack who despises other people for not having the good taste to hate themselves. Relations have cooled with his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), an icy but hysterical real-estate agent who adores expensive possessions, makes a fetish of her rose bushes and now and then releases her tension by finding a private spot and screaming her head off. She's a character only a misogynist could enjoy -- or create. Neither Lester nor Carolyn gets along with their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). She puzzles them, she clearly puzzled the scriptwriter and she puzzles the hell out of me. She's sullen, uncommunicative, alienated -- and a wildly enthusiastic member of her school's cheerleading team! How is that explained? It isn't. Apparently the scriptwriter's attitude is: Go figure; life is full of surprises.
Lester, 42 years old, decides what will save his life: great sex with one of his daughter's friends, Angela (Mena Suvari), a blond cheerleader. He goes into a fit of dreamy lust when he sees her bouncing around the basketball court, and to win her he begins a program of self-mastery: quits his job, lifts weights, smokes dope, buys a cherry red 1970 Firebird. Obviously, he sees an affair with Angela as his symbolic escape from stultifying conformity (the favourite word of the 1950s).
But as the film develops it becomes clear that the people truly locked in patterned behaviour are the director, Sam Mendes, and the scriptwriter, Alan Ball. This is a first feature for both, but they operate like tired Hollywood hacks shuffling around some long-ago film factory, peeking into old filing cabinets for ideas. The result is more anthology than movie. At the beginning, Lester speaks to us from the dead, voice-over, just like William Holden in Billy Wilder's 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard. Soon we meet a nervous teenager who uses his camcorder to get close to people, just like the guy in Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape. And when Lester drools over Angela, we immediately think of Lolita.
Sometimes the clichés are so venerable that there's no one source for them; time has rendered their creators anonymous, like the people who designed motel rooms or parking garages. What scriptwriter, for instance, first came up with the schoolgirl sexpot who smugly claims to be experienced but reveals at the crucial moment that -- surprise! -- she's a virgin? And what fiction writer first gave the world a raging butch homophobe who turns out to be -- surprise! -- a closeted gay?
American Beauty is to satire what the World Wrestling Federation is to sports. Mendes doesn't hesitate to insert, for the sake of brief excitement, entire scenes that betray his own context. At the beginning we see Jane talking about having her father killed, but later we learn she has no reason to want him dead, in fact doesn't want him dead, and doesn't arrange his murder. That opening was a tease, to make us think the movie was darker and more perverse than it is. This is the cinematic equivalent of criminal fraud.
Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the guy talking to Jane in that scene, turns out to be a bit of a fraud himself. He's clearly trying to project a psychotic image and he succeeds so well that we wouldn't be surprised if he suddenly shot up the whole cafeteria. But eventually we learn that he's a highly professional dope dealer and a nice chap, if you don't mind the dealing. Before American Beauty is over we've learned he's also a New Age philosopher ("Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in"). Given that he comes from a dysfunctional family (like everyone else on the screen), it's still never clear why someone competent and easygoing acts like a neurotic misfit. It doesn't sound like a drug dealer's perfect cover.
Kevin Spacey, whose engaging style has swiftly turned into a collection of self-indulgent tics, commits the actor's ultimate sin: He condescends to his character. Every expression makes the same point: I am taking the trouble to inhabit for the space of one film this sorry excuse for a human, but I know, and you know, and I know that you know, that I, Kevin Spacey, am infinitely superior to him. But then, the whole movie illustrates the unbearable cheapness of Hollywood condescension.
As if in fulfilment of 1950s erotic idealism, American Beauty seems anxious to applaud Lester's imaginary sexual breakthrough. True, raging lust indirectly leads to his death, as announced in the opening, but death only makes him more philosophical. He's deliriously happy when he reports back from heaven. That raises a question: How did he get there? He neglected his wife and daughter, corrupted whatever talent he may have had, blackmailed his boss and encouraged his teenage neighbour's criminality by buying dope from him. So how come St. Peter opened the gate? Go figure. Life is full of surprises.