20 Years On, and American Beauty is Still Not Very Good

There’s a lot about American Beauty that hasn’t aged well on its 20th anniversary, but the most atrocious crimes the film perpetrates are not necessarily what you would expect.

Let’s let the elephant out of the room: Kevin Spacey, one of the most respected actors of 1999, lusts after an underage girl. Change the gender and you have a frightening #metoo. And a tragic one, as we once thought of him as a solid performer until he over-indulged into Bobby Darin karaoke biopics.

But it hasn’t aged well for many reasons.

For the uninitiated, and I’m sure there aren’t many, American Beauty follows Spacey in his ass-boring advertisement job, with a beatiful real estate agent wife and a sexually frustrated daughter, as he essentially deconstructs every possible cliche of American suburbanite culture. He listens to The Who and smokes weed. He goes gaga over his daughter’s hot, on-the-surface shallow friend. His daughter (Thora Birch who, in another creepy detail, had to have her parents on set to approve of her nude scenes), is stalked by weed-dealing neighbour with a militant father (Chis Cooper). This all occurs up to the week or so of his impending death. And there’s a bag in the wind that everyone jokes about.

 The film demands you to empathize with that which is wrong with America while still condemning it. Annette Benning’s desperate real estate agent only cares for her lawns and her status, eventually sleeping with the best real estate guy in town (Peter Gallaghger, in an underrated, intentionally over-the-top role) because her husband has taken a liking to himself more than her.

This is a film that very much wants to be a time-capsule. At least, I hope that’s the case, because today, it feels downright alien.  

In the years since, screenwriter Alan Ball has proven himself to be more of an activist than a writer, masking racism and bigotry with True Blood. A writer’s sexual preference rarely matters, unless they’re entire oeuvre is making a case for their beliefs. Gus Van Sant has made some wonderful, haunting films that don’t even delve into sexual oddities or preferred genders. Jonathan Demme made Silence of the Lambs, which is somewhat offensive to the transgender community and if it isn’t yet it’ll be next on the list. But Ball’s script is curious: satirizing that which it never fully knew, really, and enforcing it with the thickest gravy of irony.

It’s still curious, to a young man growing up in the American suburbs, why anyone found what Ball had written so shocking. At the time, it was considered revelatory, scoring a best picture and numerous other Oscars. Today, we look back not with nostalgia, but a sort of self-loathing at how much we once appreciated a film whose only funny line was the bit about Re-Animator.

Today, we would have seen Chris Cooper’s ultra-conservative family man being gay not a paradox, but a logical arc.  

David Lynch’s Blue Velvet opens on the same perfectly cut green grass lawns as Beauty, then the camera pans underneath to see nothing but worms and maggots and all the awful, ugly things we try not to think about. American Beauty perhaps aspires to that kind of satire, but it does little more than a comb-over.