The greatest trick Kevin Spacey ever pulled..

Kevin Spacey is a genius, or at least a veritable magician. A couple of the folks with whom I saw “American Beauty” said afterwards: “It was great – Spacey was incredible.” His performance, it seems, is enough to have convinced people that they had just watched a decent movie, even though there is little else to recommend the film. The other significant plus is the advertising campaign – marketing it as “a funny drama” and “a moving comedy” is an ingenious way of disguising the fact that it is neither. Since there are only two or three really good laughs in the piece it isn’t really funny enough to be a comedy (but since it’s written by someone who used to work on “Cybill”, that’s hardly a surprise) and since it only gets vaguely dramatic towards the end, it doesn’t maintain the atmosphere of a “drama”. But the audience happily accepts this schizophrenic mess because the adverts told them to. The adverts also told them to “Look closer”. Again, this is a tip-top marketing ploy, since it implies hidden depth, significance and meaning, without the content actually being there. The average audience member is going to think “Wow, that plastic bag blowing around must be really poignant, because this is a DEEP movie.” Heaven forbid that they should actually think for themselves. Look closer, indeed.

What then, of the characters? Well, what characters? Every one on display here is little more than a stereotype, from fortysomething midlife crisis guy, to the uptight career-driven wife, to their moody teenage daughter to the moody teenage boy, to the homophobic soldier who – gasp – turns out to be gay, etc etc etc. Take the gay couple across the street, for example. They are only around for two or three scenes, and only then to provoke some more bigotry from Lieutenant Colonel Asskicker. They might as well have been two cardboard cut outs labelled “Gay” for all that they were able to develop. I know they are only supporting characters, but if you’re going to do a movie which tackles the issue of homosexuality, you could at least have some believable homosexual characters in it, rather than 2-D cliches.

This is indicative of the whole, ghastly, contrived nature of this film. Characters don’t feel like characters because they don’t behave in an even remotely plausible manner, they don’t behave consistently, and they seem to stumble through from one set-piece to the next. For example, Spacey getting a job at Happy Burgers; sure, that’s amusing, but the whole thing is engineered just so he can catch his wife out, and then it’s dropped. It doesn’t fit in with any discernible character arc, but is simply contrived to get a cheap laugh. What about Ricky Fitts at the beginning? You’ve just moved into a new neighbourhood, you sell drugs but you have an incredibly strict father, and you notice your new next door neighbour at a party. Do you A) introduce yourself, chat to the guy, find out if he’s the sort who will report you to the police etc. before making your move or B) march right up and offer the dope to him there and then because it expedites the action? Or how about the daughter’s friend towards the end of the movie. You’re 16 years old, you’ve just had a blazing row with your best friend, and your car is parked outside. Do you A) run off, leave the house asap, and drive straight home, or B) slink off downstairs and hang around interminably just in case Kevin Spacey shows up to carry out his perverted, sub-Lolita fantasy? I could go on all day…

The direction is, dare I say it, directionless. Sam Mendes should stick to his so-called risque theatre productions at the Donmar Warehouse. His debut film, as I have intimated, reeks of incoherence. In addition to the tonal uncertainty, there is no clear directorial vision. The only memorable images are borrowed from “Blue Velvet” and “Lolita”, the rest of the time it seems to be left to the cast to try to carry the picture, whether through Bening’s OTT hyperactivity or Wes Bentley understatement. When you look at “The Straight Story”, or “The Insider”, or even “The Sixth Sense”, it galls me to think that this has been nominated for Best Direction…

That this movie is so highly rated by critics, IMDb users, and Oscar personnel, is a great shame, because ultimately its success is a testament to people’s stupidity. A (substantial) crowd of non-thinking buffoons, easily satisfied by the occasional cheap laugh and a couple of relatively strong performances have been sold a complete lemon. This film is not deep. There is no coherent philosophical notion of either truth or beauty evident. A few shots of Ricky Fitts looking sullen and waving his camcorder around do not, I’m afraid, amount to a radical thesis on the nature of the world. And nothing can get over the contrived, episodic nature of this D-grade screenplay.

Someone earlier on this comments page claimed that they could not like anyone who didn’t love “American Beauty”, for it would mean that they have no soul. Well babe, by the same token, I will proudly say that anyone who does like this movie can’t be my friend, because they clearly have no brain. Look closer everyone, I implore you. Frankly, “American Pie” is a more profound movie. Dump this rubbish and go and see “The Insider”. Think for yourself, if you’re able…

My rating: 3 (/10)

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