Why American Beauty is the Best Film Ever Made
Update: I no longer believe American Beauty is the best film ever made, but it's way up there, so I'll let this article stand as an argument for its greatness.
When I first watched American Beauty in 2003, I had just turned 18. My parents had closely guarded my film watching habits for as long as they could, but when I turned 18 they couldn't stop me from catching up on all the R-rated goodness that cinema history has offered us.
I watched movies furiously. Quentin Tarantino. Martin Scorsese. Stephen Soderbergh. All their movies and more opened new worlds to me, and gave me a new appreciation for what film could be.
At the time, my favorite movies were comedies (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Better Off Dead, Men in Black), action flicks (Terminator 2, Die Hard), and crime dramas (Godfather I & II, Alfred Hitchcock movies).
While perusing my local video store one night, I happened across American Beauty. Apparently, it had virtually swept the Academy Awards in 1999, but it looked boring: it was about a suburban man undergoing a midlife crisis. I grudgingly picked it up, hoping those Oscars would mean something.
The movie I watched that night was the best film I had ever seen. It still is.
I'd seen Citizen Kane. I'd see The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I'd seen Chinatown. They were all great films, but when you stripped away historical context, technical innovation, and cultural importance, and looked just at the film itself, American Beauty was the best movie I'd ever seen.
Naturally, this claim shocks and outrages nearly everyone I talk to. This review is the result of the endless criticism I've received in lieu of proclaiming my love for American Beauty. It is an essay in American Beauty apologetics, if you will.
For those without the fortitude to navigate what has to be one of the longest movie reviews ever, here's the skinny: American Beauty is a perfectly scripted, wonderfully acted, confidently directed, beautiful movie - the best movie ever made. Now, for those bewildered as to how I could make this claim (ha ha, tricked you - that's everyone), read on and I'll explain.
This review is written to those who have seen the movie and disagree with me regarding its mettle. As such, I'll assume you know the plot, and that I needn't worry about spoilers.
Because this is such a hefty review, I've broken it into manageable bits. I'll begin by addressing some of the common arguments against American Beauty.
American Beauty is unoriginal. I'll be the first to admit that American Beauty is no Pulp Fiction, Being John Malkovich, or Memento. While its script is certainly unconventional (more on this later), it's not the first of its kind (as was the case with Citizen Kane, for example).
The story is told in common chronology, and is composed of familiar elements: dysfunctional families, midlife crises, affairs, drug dealers, insecure teens, etc.
But really, is any movie original? After all, there are only so many stories in existence (7, 36, whichever list you choose). Conflicted love. Revenge. Struggle against nature. Fish out of water. Rescue. Pursuit. Whatever. For centuries, writers have only been able to reshape and recombine the same story elements.
Thus, the appearance of originality can only come from the presentation of the story. Citizen Kane is just another detective story, but it happens to be told in flashback. Pulp Fiction is yet another crime story, but it combines three separate narratives. Memento is a common murder mystery, but it's told backward.
Or, a movie can appear original because of a unique gimmick. Fellini's 8 1/2 (and Adaptation after it) is reflexive in that it's a movie about making 8 1/2. Being John Malkovich explores the notion of taking over another person's mind and body. Both are brilliant movies, but they are stories, as with any stories, that we've heard before: a struggling, overstressed, misunderstood artist and an unconfident man finding a way to secure the love of an assumedly unreachable love.
In each of these cases and more, telling the story in a fresh way or with a fresh gimmick benefited the movie. But would American Beauty have been a better movie if it was told in flashback? In reverse? With American Beauty as the subject of a filmmaker in the movie? No. Like so many great movies before it, the story of American Beauty was best told without stretching for originality by convoluting its structure or chronology, or by tossing in unnecessary oddities.
American Beauty is ugly. So is A Clockwork Orange. So is The Godfather. So is Taxi Driver. So is Pulp Fiction. And, most importantly, so is life.
The irony of the film's title is pronounced at its end when Ricky looks at the gory site of Lester's shattered skull and finds beauty in the contentment of Lester's lifeless eyes.
In a way, American Beauty is about finding the beauty amongst the filth, tragedy, and ugliness of our lives. In another way, American Beauty is about the beauty in the truth of our ugly lives. We're not perfect. We're selfish, jealous, lustful, violent, unstable, and insecure. To be sure, a painting of these hues would be tumultuous and unsettling, but perhaps more true and relevant than anything else. American Beauty is this painting, and it's masterful.
Perhaps it is the truth in American Beauty's ugliness that offends some of its critics, because it forces them to confront the ugliness in their own lives (the film's tagline is, after all, 'look closer'). But this is one of American Beauty's strengths. It causes us to examine ourselves without ever being preachy.
In fact, the film itself criticizes rather than celebrates the ugliness of modern American life: materialism, bland routine, facades of success ("Our marriage... is a commercial, proving how normal we are, when we are anything but"), and identity crisis.
And, those put in a bad mood by the bleak picture of American life the movie paints may use Lester's satisfying transformation as a soothing balm. What's more, American Beauty shows us that life is not irrevocably disheartening, but that goodness and happiness are only an arm's length away, if only we will reach. As D.W. Griffith argued at the opening of his controversial masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation (1915), the film shows "the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue."
American Beauty is too glib. This is the complaint that most confounds me. American Beauty, with all its heavy themes and materials, is a film that could easily collapse under its own weight if it did not treat the material with some ease and informality. Treating the material with absolute gravity and severity would make American Beauty unenjoyably (and unnecessarily) burdensome and preachy.
The approach taken is very much the intention of the filmmakers. American Beauty is, among other things, a black comedy. It occasionally finds humor and irony amidst bleak circumstances, though none as grim as those of other masterful black comedies, like global nuclear warface (Dr. Strangelove) or serial murder (Arsenic and Old Lace).
I'm not sure the quality of American Beauty's ensemble acting was ever in question. It showcases Kevin Spacey's strongest performance in a career of brilliant performances. If it weren't for Kevin Spacey, Wes Bentley would claim the accolades for breakthrough performance of the movie. He is absolutely haunting as Ricky Fitts. Chris Cooper is heartwrenching, and one of the best supporting actors of our time. Thora Birch and Mena Suvari play their roles like the teens we all know: awkward, uncomfortable, and self-absorbed. Annette Bening's performance might seem over-the-top to some, but there are people that animated and stressed out, and the movie is a black comedy, after all. I don't hear any complaining about Peter Sellers' performance in Dr. Strangelove.
The great acting manifests itself in some of the most memorable line readings of recent years: Wes Bentley's reading of "Sometimes, there's just so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it," and Kevin Spacey's reading of "I didn't lose it - it's not like 'whoops, where'd my job go?' - I quit!" and "It's just a couch!"
I'm least qualified to critique this area of the film, but the movie looks and feels great to me, so I'm happy. Not to mention that Sam Mendes won numerous awards for his effort, and was supported by multiple award-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall.
Hauntingly beautiful, and never too intrusive. 'Nuff said.
Here we come to meat and potatoes of the review (What? We've just begun!?). The script (or, more accurately, the script as it ends up on the screen) is the most important part of any movie (not considering works like Koyaanisqatsi). A script is the plot, the characters, the heart, the story - the entire purpose of the movie. Movies are just another way to tell a good story, and the script is that story. A movie succeeds or fails at the script.
I'll bet you know what I'm going to say at this point, but I'll say it anyway: American Beauty has one of the best scripts ever written.
Because this is such a large topic, I'll once again break it into manageable sections. I'll begin with the big picture.
American Beauty is a great story, well told. This is the supreme aspiration of any movie. It is a story to which we can all relate: that of a pitiful man experiencing a midlife crisis, a career-obsessed woman, and an insecure teenager. These characters and their situations are familiar to us, but they have far too much depth to be stereotypes (more on that later). It gives us drama, comedy, conflict, rising action, social and cultural commentary, twists and surprises, angering moments, hilarious moments, and touching moments. It is the heartfelt tale of an American family in crisis.
American Beauty is the perfect execution of an unconventional story structure. Like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Ordinary People (1980), Magnolia (1999), and others, American Beauty presents us with several protagonists (and thus, narratives), telling their stories simultaneously in chronological order (as opposed to the broken chronology of other multiple-protagonist movies like Pulp Fiction (1994) and Go (1999)).
We see the interconnected stories of Lester, Carolyn, and Jane weave in and out of one another until they converge beautifully in the climax. There is amazing continuity and ease amidst this complicated approach, so much so that most of my friends don't even realize there is anything 'different' about the movie (i.e. multiple protagonists).
American Beauty has great characters. American Beauty boasts wonderfully developed characters that first seem familiar, then confound our expectations. Lester is the bored 40s businessman, until he flips his own life up-side-down. Angela is the stereotypical seductive blonde until it turns out that she's a virgin. Ricky Fitts is a drug addict who turns out to be the most secure and 'together' character in the movie. Carolyn ends up sleeping with her arch nemesis and competitor. The homophobic Colonel Fitts turns out to be homo-curious.
Lester's opening voice-over introduces us to the major characters quickly, but the rest of the movie efficiently continues character development simultaneously with plot development so that the end of the movie leaves us with a remarkably rounded, personal, and memorable cast of characters.
American Beauty has a great plot. While most films struggle to advance the plot in every scene (some scenes are added solely for character development or worse, spectacle), American Beauty succeeds in accomplishing all its goals without adding extra scenes that do not move the plot.
Because there are multiple narratives, there are also more plot points than a typical movie. This provides for an enjoyably speedy pace.
The best plots are said to be character driven, and American Beauty certainly has that covered. Plot and action do not pull the characters along for a ride, but rather the characters push the plot along by their decisions.
American Beauty has great scenes. The most immediate concern of a movie is to hook the audience and show them that this story is worth two hours of their precious time. Sixty seconds in, we have an unseen teenager apparently agreeing to murder another's father. Hooked. The very next thing? Lester Burnham saying, "In less than a year, I'll be dead." Double hook.
The next concern of any story is to introduce its major characters. American Beauty has this covered, in quite a clever and entertaining fashion, less than 3 minutes later.
Just like the whole movie, each scene is very efficient, accomplishing many things at once in as little time as possible. The script also makes good use of sequences to give the story momentum. The first is about Lester's job. The second is about Carolyn trying to sell a house. And so on. These sequences carry the audience with ease through the story.
American Beauty has great dialogue. The dialogue in American Beauty always accomplishes several things at once, whether it be revealing character and entertaining, moving the plot and providing backstory, or commenting on society and paying tribute to another movie. Alas, it's hard to give examples, along with analysis of why they're so great, without consuming several pages.
American Beauty is daring. If the bleak outlook it was so heavily criticized for wasn't enough, American Beauty also battles political correctness, 'common wisdom,' and stereotypes.
For example, common parenting advice dictates that teenagers want their parents to be involved in their life and activities, and that parental absence from these things can make the child feel unimportant and unloved. But I know that when I was a teenager the only result of my parents showing up for a sporting event or party would be embarrassment. I've heard most of my peers express the same sentiment. American Beauty plays with this when we first hear Jane talking with a friend about how she doesn't want her parents to come to her cheerleader performance. Then, on their way to the event, Caroline and Lester discuss how important it is to Jane that they attend.
Another example comes a little later when Jane discovers she is being spied on. She outwardly proclaims that she finds it creepy, and calls Ricky an asshole, but during a private moment with the audience, we discover that it makes Jane feel special and interesting, and she likes it. This kind of thing is what many people experience, but few admit until much later.
American Beauty is a case study in brilliant filmmaking: memorable and believable characters, plot twists, setup and payoff, reversals, scene construction, conflict buildup and resolution, mood setting, and pace. It may not be the greatest, most important, or most influential film ever, but I do think it's the best. Perhaps as time passes critics will appreciate it more, as has happened with Metropolis (1927), Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and countless others.