Sam Mendes’ American Beauty is another of those chilled morality tales, much like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, speaking about—but not necessarily to—Americans wallowing in their glaring amorality and materialism; in short, the movies are lectures about us from directors who don’t really know us. Shortly into AB, Kevin Spacey is irritated by not being able to watch the James Bond marathon on TNT when in fact the Bond series ran as a virtual exclusive on TBS at the time of the making of this picture. It’s not a minor point to quibble over; while it may mean less for the British-born Cambridge-educated director to miss the error, it’s not okay for born-in-the-U.S.A. Spacey and smartass screenwriter Alan Ball, neither of whom ignorant of media noise, to skip over this telling detail which almost fatally alters our receptiveness. On the Internet, it’s been written this movie is “high concept,” but once we’re into the movie’s limpy, hackneyed throbs of probable danger—especially in regard to a pro-Nazi closet case—everything becomes “low information” expectant and the only heightened achievement is in our feeling of being had. If Mendes and Ball believe they’re onto something scoldingly revelatory, the rest of us will likely conclude they’ve clogged transmissions via the tiresome drug of convenient harpiness. (As one writer put it, once more it’s “the suburbs as soulless enclaves full of cul de sacs that end in ruin.”) American Beauty is a more entertaining reproach than Lee’s; at least we can laugh at the fractured mumblings—like the spooky clear-eyed drug pusher’s Cybill-inspired self-estimation he’s the “best piece of ass in three states” and he sells for two grand government-grown grass genetically engineered to eliminate the paranoia. And also laugh at Spacey’s taunting job resignation. The actor is, though, tepid; he’s never much involved—detached, even chronically inconsummate, both as character and personality. (Is this why he won an Oscar—because he never cums? What man could if dressed for bed in a t-shirt and heavy-duty p.j.s? He’s much more effective in the detestable Hurlyburly and, despite his age, as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea.) His wrap-up narration may have been stolen from Glenn Close’s in Reversal of Fortune. By all accounts, Annette Bening expected to win an Oscar for her performance, which isn’t only presumptuous it’s also evidence of self-delusion. She’s the current Screen Queen of Shrill—a snot-nosed bitch, a disguised dullard. Viewers familiar with HBO’s Six Feet Under will note some origins in AB—Ball’s use of death to get into subjects like familial dysfunction, sex and homosexuality, drugs, social mores. Though it’s been too long since watching the complete series on DVD, I still reel from a variety of emotions and hope one day to have more to say about the show when my mind reassembles from all the discombobulation. But here’s a sneak preview: no other entertainment I can think of has a greater set of Scenes from the Kitchen.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  Revised 11/2008 All Rights Reserved.