A Good Year for the Roses?

American Beauty is blooming but rank; For Love of the Game is overripe.

American Beauty

Directed by Sam Mendes
DreamWorks SKG

For Love of the Game

Directed by Sam Raimi
Universal Pictures

Early in American Beauty, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a weary reporter for a media magazine, masturbates in the shower while informing us in voice-over that we’re witnessing the highlight of his day. He peers through tired eyes out the window at his manicured suburban tract-house lawn, where his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening)–whose gardening clogs, he points out, are color-coordinated with the handles of her shears–snips roses (American beauties) and twitters about Miracle-Gro to a gay yuppie (Scott Bakula) on the other side of a white picket fence. “I have lost something,” says Lester. “I’m not exactly sure what it is but I know I didn’t always feel this … sedated.” Apparently, Lester doesn’t realize that snipped roses are garden-variety symbols of castration, or he’d know what he has lost. But the makers of American Beauty are about to give Lester his roses back. At a high-school basketball game, Lester is transfixed by a blonde cheerleader named Angela (Mena Suvari), who is twirling alongside his daughter, Jane (Thora Burch). Ambient noise falls away, the crowd disappears, and there she is, Lester’s angel, writhing in slow motion–just for him. She opens her jacket (she’s naked underneath) and red rose petals drift out. Later, Lester envisions her on a bed of red petals, then immersed in a bath of red petals. Back in the roses for the first time in years, he’s soon pumping iron, smoking pot, and telling off his frigid wife and faceless bosses, convinced that whatever he has lost he’s getting back, baby.

The movie is convinced, too–which is odd, since the fantasy of an underage cheerleader making a middle-aged man’s wilted roses bloom is a tad … primitive. But American Beauty doesn’t feel primitive. It feels lustrously hip and aware, and a lot of critics are making big claims for it. The script, by Alan Ball, a playwright and former sitcom writer, carries an invigorating blast of counterculture righteousness, along with the kind of pithily vicious marital bickering that makes some viewers (especially male) say, “Yeah! Tell that bitch off!” More important, it has a vein of metaphysical yearning, which the director, Sam Mendes, mines brilliantly. A hotshot English theater director (his Cabaret revival is still on the boards in New York), Mendes gives the film a patina of New Age lyricism and layer upon layer of visual irony. The movie’s surface is velvety and immaculate–until the action is abruptly viewed through the video camera of the teen-age voyeur next door (Wes Bentley), and the graininess of the video image (along with the plangent music) suggests how unstable the molecules that constitute our “reality” really are. Mendes can distend the real into the surreal with imperceptible puffs. Aided by his cinematographer, Conrad Hall, and editors, Tariq Anwar and Chris Greenbury, he creates an entrancing vision of the American nuclear family on the verge of a meltdown.

AmericanBeauty is so wittily written and gorgeously directed that you might think you’re seeing something archetypal–maybe even the Great American Movie. But when you stop and smell the roses … Well, that scent isn’t Miracle-Gro. The hairpin turns from farce to melodrama, from satire to bathos, are fresh and deftly navigated, but almost every one of the underlying attitudes is smug and easy: from the corporate flunky named “Brad” to the interchangeable gay neighbors (they’re both called “Jim”) to the brutally homophobic patriarch next door, an ex-Marine colonel (Chris Cooper) who has reduced his wife (the normally exuberant Allison Janney) to a catatonic mummy and his son, Ricky (Bentley), to a life of subterranean deception. (The colonel’s idea of bliss is watching an old Ronald Reagan military picture on television: How’s that for subtle?) Lester’s wife, Carolyn, is even more stridently caricatured. A real-estate broker who fails to sell a big house (her only potential customers are blank-faced African-Americans, Indian-Americans, and surly lesbians), she wears a mask of perky efficiency and insists on listening to Muzak while she and her husband and daughter eat her “nutritious yet savory” dinners. It’s amazing that Mendes and Ball get away with recycling so many stale and reactionary ideas under the all-purpose rubric of “black comedy.”

But it’s also possible that those ideas have rarely been presented so seductively. Several months ago, Daniel Menaker in Slate identified a strain in contemporary film in which the protagonist attempts to break through our cultural and technological anesthetization into “the real.” That’s the theme here, too, and it’s extraordinarily potent, at times even heartbreaking. The symbols, however, have been cunningly reversed. In movies like sex, lies, and videotape (1989), the protagonist has to put away the video camera to “get real”; in American Beauty, it’s Ricky Fitts, the damaged stoner videomaker next door, who sees beauty where nonartists see only horror or nothingness. In the film’s most self-consciously poetic set piece, Ricky shows Lester’s dour daughter Jane–in whom he recognizes a kindred spirit–a video of a plastic bag fluttering up, down, and around on invisible currents of wind. Ricky speaks of glimpsing in the bag’s trajectory an “entire life behind things”–a “benevolent force” that holds the universe together. The teen-ager, who likes to train his lenses on dead bodies of animals and people, sells wildly expensive marijuana to Lester and somehow passes on this notion of “beauty.” By the end, Lester is mouthing the same sentiments and has acquired the same deadpan radiance. That must be some really good shit they’re smoking.

I t’s not the druggy philosophizing, however, that makes American Beauty an emotional workout. It’s that the caricatures are grounded in sympathy instead of derision. Everyone on screen is in serious pain. The manipulative sexpot Angela, who taunts her friend Jane with the idea of seducing her dad, acts chiefly out of a terror of appearing ordinary. As the military martinet, Cooper goes against the grain, turning Col. Fitts into a sour bulldog whose capaciously baggy eyes are moist with sadness over his inability to reach out. (When he stands helplessly in the rain at the end, the deluge completes him.) The character of Carolyn is so shrill as to constitute a libel on the female sex, but there isn’t a second when Bening sends the woman up. She doesn’t transcend the part, she fills it to the brim, anatomizes it. You can’t hate Carolyn because the woman is trying so hard–to appear confident, composed, in control. When she fails to sell that house, she closes the shades and lets go with a naked wail–it’s the sound of a vacuum crying to be filled–then furiously slaps herself while sputtering, “Shut up–you’re weak–shut up.” Then she breathes, regains her go-get-’em poise, replaces her mask. Carolyn isn’t a complicated dramatic construction, but Bening gives her a primal force. An actress who packs more psychological detail into a single gesture than others get into whole scenes, Bening was barreling down the road to greatness before she hit a speed bump called Warren. It’s a joy to observe her–both here and in Neil Jordan’s In Dreams (1999)–back at full throttle.

American Beauty is Spacey’s movie, though. He gives it–how weird to write this about Spacey, who made his name playing flamboyantly self-involved psychopaths–a heart. Early on, he lets his face and posture go slack and his eyes blurry. He mugs like crazy, telegraphing Lester’s “loserness.” But Spacey’s genius is for mugging in character. He makes us believe that it’s Lester who’s caricaturing himself, and that bitter edge paves the way for the character’s later, more comfortably Spacey-like scenes of insult and mockery. He even makes us take Lester’s final, improbably rhapsodic moments straight.

But do the filmmakers take them straight? If I read it correctly, the movie is saying that American society is unjust and absurd and loveless–full of people so afraid of seeming ordinary that they lose their capacity to see. It’s saying that our only hope is to cultivate a kind of stoned aesthetic detachment whereby even a man with his brains blown out becomes an object of beauty and a signpost to a Higher Power. But to scrutinize a freshly dead body and not ask how it got that way–or if there’s anyone nearby with a gun who might want to add to the body count–strikes me as either moronic or insane or both. The kind of detachment the movie is peddling isn’t artistic, it isn’t life–it’s nihilism at its most fatuous. In the end, American Beauty is New Age Nihilism.

K evin Costner is 11 years older than he was as Crash Davis, the over-the-hill minor-league catcher in Bull Durham (1988), but he can still get away with playing a professional ballplayer. He moves and acts like a celebrity jock, and he can make his narcissistic self-containment look as if he’s keeping something in reserve–to protect his “instrument,” as it were. In For Love of the Game, he’s a 40ish Detroit Tigers pitcher having his last hurrah: The team has been sold and the new owners don’t necessarily want him back. For about half an hour, it’s a great sports movie. Costner stands on the mound shaking off the signals of his longtime catcher (John C. Reilly); he forces himself to tune out the huge Yankee Stadium crowd (the background blurs before our eyes and the sound drops out); and he mutters darkly at a succession of batters, some old nemeses, some old buddies.

He also thinks about his Manhattan-based ex-girlfriend (Kelly Preston), who tearfully told him that morning that things were absolutely over and she was moving to London. There’s an appealing flashback to how they met (he stopped to fix her car while on the way to Yankee Stadium), then it’s back to the game for more nail-biting at bats. But pretty soon the relationship flashbacks start coming thick and fast, and the balance of the movie shifts to whether Kevin can commit to Kelly and Kelly can commit to Kevin or whether his only commitment could ever be to the ball and the diamond and the game.

Maybe it’s because I’m a baseball nut that I hated to leave the mound. But maybe it’s also because the relationships scenes are soft-focus, generic, and woozily drawn-out, whereas the stuff in the stadium is sharply edited and full of texture. The rhythms of the game feel right; the rhythms of the romance feel embarrassingly Harlequin, and the picture drags on for over two hours. I can’t believe that the director, Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, 1983; last year’s A Simple Plan) thought that all those scenes of Costner and Preston staring into space while the piano plinks would end up in the final cut, but Raimi apparently gave up control of the final cut for the sake of making his first, real mainstream picture. He might as well have stuck his head over the plate and said, “Bean me.”