The Subtle Stink That Mars 'American Beauty'

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Oscar winners for Best Picture run to extremes of public and private. They may be great epics — "Schindler's List" (1993), "Gandhi" (1982), "Patton" (1970), "Ben-Hur" (1958), "Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), "Gone With the Wind" (1939), "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1929), to name some. Or they may be small, private stories like "Rain Man" (1989), "Terms of Endearment" (1984), "Ordinary People" (1980), "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979), "Annie Hall" (1977), or, far back, "It Happened One Night" (1933).

Sometimes the two dimensions battle it out. Last year, Big History in the form of "Saving Private Ryan" lost to romance and literary jeu d'espritin the form of "Shakespeare in Love." The almost certain winner this year, "American Beauty," is an unusual hybrid, a creepy and intermittently lovely private tale — soap opera, mordant comic poem — that, at the same time, aspires to an elusive public significance.

I can't decide whether to admire "American Beauty" or to detest it. I had something of the same bifocal reaction a few years ago to Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." Right brain, left brain. My hip self (if there is such a thing) found it brilliant, hilarious — and laughed when the guy in the backseat accidentally got his face blown off. My other self was angry and disgusted by the movie's flippant violence.

In "American Beauty," it is possible to admire wonderful acting (especially Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey) while suspecting that the exercise as a whole is a bit contemptible... and slightly lame.

If you turn "American Beauty" on its axis and inspect it from a different angle, its magic vanishes. You see a procession of vulgar clichés:

  • The only sane, happy people in the American community are gay couples. Everyone else is a disaster.
  • Heterosexual marriage is a bitter, empty charade in which man and wife despise each other, children loathe their parents, and parents live in imbecile ignorance of their children.
  • If a man has served his country as a U.S. Marine, that makes him a covert Nazi, a brutal husband and father, a repressed homosexual who secretly longs for sex with other men, and, thwarted in that, murders the object of his desire.
  • Marijuana is a sacrament, the great liberator. And in that light, the drug dealer becomes Johnny Appleseed.
  • American consumerist life is empty and corrosively false, and we've all got too much expensive stuff.
  • The mature American male is an idiot unable to cope with the emasculating competitive careerism of women (itself a laughable charade); he can save himself only by a wilful reversion to adolescence. But in the reversion, he must die. (Hmmm. Why exactly?)
  • If a weird kid stares quizzically at a man with a bullet hole in his head, the kid may — if he has been smoking his own best weed — find something beautiful in the spectacle.

It would be philistine to parse a true work of art in this way — to say, for example, that "King Lear" presents a pretty sorry picture of father-daughter relations. But lesser works like "American Beauty" have to take their chances. Being Best Picture does not make it a work of art. (Think of 1990's Best, Kevin Costner's ridiculous "Dances With Wolves.")

"American Beauty" is sneaky in its philosophical emanations; gases may enter undetected and start to affect the brain before we realize what is happening. I begin to think we should each carry a canary into darkened movie theaters. If the canary starts to gasp and keel over, we should run for our lives.