In a literal example of trash passed off as treasure, American Beauty bet it all on a windswept plastic bag and won. This Best Picture winner laid Oscar down on a bed of roses and made him shout its name. Released in 1999, American Beauty likely could not have appeared in any time or place other than turn-of-the-millennium USA, when prosperity was abundant enough to have grown dull. Only when the nation’s greatest concern was the President getting a blowjob were the conditions so ripe for critics and consumers alike to gleefully swallow this film’s brand of gussied-up clichés like mother’s milk.
A decade-plus before Kevin Spacey was portraying a horrible boss, he was rebelling against one. Fluorescently-lit cubicle culture and the antiseptic nature of affluent domestic life were the cinematic villains of 1999. Office Space and Fight Club joined American Beauty in glorifying button-down protagonists who snap out of their trances and bite the hands that feed them. All three films manifest the apparent late ‘90s wet dream of blowing off well-paying yet stuffy corporate jobs only to then extort or outright steal from those morally bankrupt employers. But while Fight Club’s Tyler Durden and Office Space’s Peter Gibbons act out due to a severe dissociative disorder and the lingering effects of an aborted hypnosis, respectively, American Beauty’s 42-year-old Lester Burnham (Spacey) does so because he wants to jump a teenage cheerleader’s bones.
Lester is even more vacuous and morally suspect than the machine he rages against. In the buildup to his revolt, Lester is incensed by a head honcho’s corruption and sexual impropriety costing the company $50,000. “That’s someone’s salary!” he self-righteously shouts. His retaliation? Lester blackmails the company for $60k and takes the long view strategy to seduce a child (Mena Suvari). He is, after all, a self-centered prick who prefers to pound out drain babies during his morning shower than to engage his impressionable teenage daughter (Thora Birch) in meaningful conversation. And while the film doesn’t hesitate to show that Lester is an asshole, it desperately tries to make him our asshole. He deadpans about how lobotomized he perceives his career-oriented wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) to be, eying her slantwise as she has the audacity to prune rose bushes while pleasantly conversing with friendly neighbors. He never suspects that his own emotional aloofness or, later, verbal abuse is perhaps a reason for her discontent and instead chalks up her unhappiness to actually giving a shit about her job.
Regression was truly a virtue in the movies of 1999. As Y2K threatened to literally turn back the clock, figuratively doing so was to be praised. With the Cold War in the rearview and September 11th (at that time) just another date on the calendar, baby boomers approached middle age with the lurking suspicion that, without a tangible enemy to blame, perhaps the American Dream itself was an insidious threat to the pursuit of happiness. The new dream mutated into petulantly calling “bullshit” on the old one. In American Beauty, hallucinated rose petals bursting forth from jailbait serve as Lester’s initial Bodhi tree. His purported enlightenment is furthered when he begins smoking pot with the neighbor boy, Ricky (Wes Bentley). Again, Lester would rather get high with his daughter’s eventual boyfriend than talk to her about anything other than how much of a bitch her mother is. Carolyn is cast as a shrewish lost soul for reasonably (if frenziedly) objecting to his sudden shirking of financial responsibility and familial duty. Though Lester feels justified in buying a sports car on a whim, when Carolyn warns him he’s about to spill beer on their expensive sofa he launches into a sanctimonious diatribe about the evils of materialism.
Lester’s cross to bear is that interpersonal relationships require effort and that douchebaggery has social consequences. He’s an entitled, morally repugnant, piece-of-shit father whose main goal in life is to bang a teenager. When he stops short of penetration (despite a protracted seduction sequence that could have been pulled directly from “Skinemax”), it’s not because he’s had a moral change of heart, but because the girl, at the last minute, admits to being a virgin. This kills Lester’s fantasy that she, in her nubile youth, possesses the carnal knowledge that he’s forgotten over the years. His fantasy shrivels along with his manhood and somehow this leads him, upon his quickly following death, to become an authority on the meaning of life.
And of course, that’s not even getting into Ricky’s skewed vision of beauty (he’s the guy who gets all weepy while watching a 15-minute video of airborne litter, but speaks unemotionally about filming the frozen corpse of a homeless woman). The philosophical heft of the film is placed squarely on this humorlessly intense teenager’s shoulders and is filtered through his camcorder. He’s elevated to a guru, despite the fact that his antisocial tendencies include being a proud drug dealer, a shameless voyeur and (I assume) a future serial killer. His weirdness is conveniently explained away by his undiagnosed dementia-riddled mother (Allison Janney) and stereotypically draconian ex-Marine father (Chris Cooper), who’s also prone to punching (and shooting people in the back of the head) due to his own repressed homosexuality.
American Beauty’s thematic failings are not merely due to a naïve belief in perpetual prosperity that was rampant during the late Clintonian era. Gold flecks can be sifted through era-specific sediment, after all. But American Beauty is an artistic failure specifically because there is nothing about the greater human condition in this film, only the whininess of privileged white people with some domestic violence, dime store philosophy and a tacked-on murder thrown in to add artificial weight. After two hours of cardboard cutouts behaving badly, shirking responsibilities due to boredom with how economically awesome everything is and uttering so many cheesy catchphrases (“You are so busted!”; “I rule!”; “Welcome to America’s weirdest home videos,” et. al.) that you’d think you were watching American Pie, American Beauty pompously claims to know the secret to happiness. Or barring that, it brashly insists (perhaps in self-preservation) that no one can stay mad about getting shot in the head as long as there are pieces of garbage to watch.