American Beauty (1999) is the winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Additionally, it was nominated for Best Actress (Annette Benning), Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score. It boasts an 88% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Can a movie be narcissistic? I don’t mean the director, screenwriter, or actors; I’m talking about the movie itself. If the answer is yes, then surely American Beauty is the most self-obsessed movie in existence. Every single element is deeply in love with itself. Sam Mendes, not a bad director by any means (I’m the biggest apologist of Road to Perdition in North America), frames each shot as if he’s making the most important film in cinema history. While the direction is certainly overwrought, it’s near the bottom of the shit list in terms of American Beauty’s crimes. More problematic is Alan Ball’s screenplay, which flaunts itself as the cleverest American satire since Mark Twain put pen to paper, but is in fact full of grindingly obvious clichés. The problems begin with the premise. The ennui of the upper middle class is a topic that has been flogged far past the point of redundancy; it’s not beating a dead horse, it’s beating the bones of that horse’s distant descendants (Absurdly, Sam Mendes revisited this theme in Revolutionary Road, another film that spends its runtime groveling for an Oscar). Every aspect of the plot unfolds with equal parts pretentiousness and dullness. This is a movie that has a character unironically pontificating about a plastic bag floating in the wind. This is a movie where a middle-aged man’s sexual fantasies about a teenage girl begin and end with her covered in falling rose petals. This is a movie where a virulently homophobic Marine is revealed to be – gasp! – a self-loathing gay man himself.