American Beauty (1999)


Hey, here’s one of those rare Oscar-winning movies that I’ve actually seen before.  Confession time:  I’m pretty sure I only watched it because Scott Bakula was in it, in a miniscule role as one of the Jims.  I was certainly not yet old enough to appreciate a story about a middle-aged man’s mid-life crisis.  It’s quite possible that I’m still not ready.

When I first started watching Mad Men, many moons ago, and before its popularity exploded (I don’t say that to sound cool, just to note that around season two it was still building momentum), a friend said that what he liked most about the show was that all of the characters were despicable at some point.  I thought about that in relation to this movie:  most of the characters, from Kevin Spacey’s snarky Lester to creepy Ricky Fitts, from run-of-the-mill bitchy cheerleader Angela to barely-keeping-it-together Carolyn – everybody’s pretty unlikeable for a good chunk of the movie.  It’s that unlikeability that makes it hard to emphasize with much of anyone here.

And let’s talk about the elephant in the room:  beauty.  Everything is so fucking beautiful in this movie.  A little plastic bag dancing on the pavement.  The blank look in someone’s dead eyes.  What does it mean to be beautiful?  You might think that we find beauty in the everyday, or at least, that’s what Ricky Fitts might have you believe.  But then he hurls “ordinary” at Angela as an insult, so what exactly is it that he considers beauty to be?  To me, it just sounds like a meaningless word that people throw around as a substitute for taking a critical look at the world around them.  If everything is beautiful, then nothing has any particular significance over anything else, and thus nothing is beautiful.  Boom!  Deep thoughts.

You know what I think?  I think if the creepy next-door-neighbor was constantly filming me, I would find that repulsive and would avoid him.  I don’t think I would be wooed by his personal screenings of all the random crap he caught on video tape.  Today, he’d probably be Instagramming pictures of used condoms and empty Cheetos packages on the street and calling it Art.

I don’t mean to bash this movie so much – well, maybe I do.  It’s funny in many parts, often in a bit of a cringey way.  But it also seems to shows its age a bit, nearly twenty years later.  We’ve seen the Kid Can’t Live Up To His Overly Militaristic Dad’s Expectations story so many times, and even the Homophobic Guy Is Secretly Gay Himself story feels dated at this point.  Granted, I’m probably seeing this from the contemporary perspective, and maybe it was more surprising when the movie was released.

There’s also a bit of a conflicting message in the end.  On the surface, things look great:  families seem normal, beautiful people are to be admired.  But “look closer” and what do you see?  Nothing but dysfunction, festering unhappiness.  However!  If you look even closer, or maybe farther away, the world is full of beauty!  It might be different beauty from the rotted relationships and ordinary people roaming through the world, or it might just be the trash that we’ve discarded and no longer notice is destroying the environment, or maybe – get ready for your brain to explode with the profundity of it all – IT’S ALL BEAUTIFUL, even the bad stuff.

<explosions, which are also beautiful>


Theme:  the American Man

First Time Watching?  I’ve seen it a couple of times

Final Verdict:  Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful


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