American Beauty – 1 star

Hollywood conceits come in many forms. In the Denzel Washington/John Lithgow film Ricochet, the screenwriter presumes he can replicate the idiom of the inner city. There is a scene with Washington, as the good black man who “made it out” and Ice T, as the bad drug lord who is still “in.” Their exchange is gussied up Shaft. The screenwriter even concluded the film with Washington saying “You can kiss my black ass!”

The screenwriter of Ricochet?

Steve

So, Hollywood’s sense of urban culture is lacking. But you’d think it would have a better handle on places closer to its heart, like suburbia. Think again. Hollywood sees the suburbs as a vast wasteland, a place for vacuity and the spawning of disgruntled screenwriters. Hollywood’s grasp on Maple and Main is no more firm than its grasp on “the ‘hood.”

Which brings me to American Beauty, a false film of suburban decay. Kevin Spacey has a midlife crisis, though it really isn’t a true midlife crisis, because he is married to Annette Bening, and she is so cartoonishly gruesome that Spacey’s crisis seems less a subject of introspection than one of survival. Bening approaches her character as Martha Stewart on methampehtamine (and that’s the joke – get it? – because Martha Stewart is so insidious). She is so outlandish that any acting out on the part of her husband and daughter seems ho hum. And then there is the tranquilized housewife neighbor, and the homophobic (or is he?) Marine neighbor, and the disaffected, let-down teens. You’ve seen it all too many times to be touched.

What is good about the film? A few things. It ends tidy. Spacey plays decidedly above the material (though, being the only empathetic character, he is difficult to judge because you beg for his return during every one of his absences).

But what is bad is really quite awful. The characters are abused rather than drawn. The use of Bening as Mothra the Suburban Scene Eating Hydra not only minimizes most character reaction, but it seems cruel.

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Bening is so demonized and dehumanized – all for the illumination of Spacey – that you pity her.

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