This piece from Natasha Vargas-Cooper on American Beauty really struck a chord with me. Like her, I enjoyed the film greatly upon its initial release and now find it to be cloying and aggravating and a truly shameful choice for best picture in 1999, which was otherwise a pretty amazing year.
At first blush, American Beauty seemed grand, dark, and subversive (especially to the angst-riddled mind of a high school sophomore not old enough to buy tickets for R-rated movies). … The movie’s themes pander directly to the narcissism of the young—libidinous individualism, the triumph of youth over cynicism, the beauty of ordinary things (i.e. dead birds, plastic bags) over empty materialism. We responded naively and passionately—the desired effect. But we were just kids! What is so confounding now about American Beauty is how adults endorsed such juvenilia.
I think what Vargas-Cooper is failing to pick up on is the fact that most of the Boomers never moved past juvenilia. Narcissists of the first order, the Boomers were confused that the world failed to present itself in a way they found pleasing. Endless prosperity, never wanting for material goods, and a comfortable existence wasn’t enough — indeed, it was almost an insult. “All this and I’m still not having fun? What the hell, man?”
As Vargas-Cooper points out, the petulant vacuousness of this sensibility became all the more obvious two years later:
It’s a pitifully pre-9/11 movie: We were prosperous! There’s no war! We have a good economy! Yet we are still sad! Being unable to love someone more than yourself is the central theme of the film, but given the glibness with which it’s handled, it seems petty. The angst that drives American Beauty is three decades too late.
“Yet we are still sad!” As if the most important thing in the world is happiness. Not, mind you, self-fulfillment — is Lester’s (Kevin Spacey) rediscovery of pot some sort of grand achievement? Is spending his evenings (and, later, afternoons) in a pot-induced haze the event that is supposed to give Lester’s life meaning? God, I hope not. If that’s what Mendes was going for, it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. The rejection of responsibility for shallow, mindless happiness — really, just another kind of numbness, the thing that Lester is supposedly fed up with — is the height of narcissism.
There are few modern tropes more annoying than the celebration of suburban ennui. It passes for edginess, a way of sticking it to the squares. In truth, however, there is no safer idea in Hollywood than saying to the people who buy movie tickets that “middle class life is killing you.” Between American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Mendes has made a career of pushing just that facile notion.