Does American Beauty Still Hold Up?
September 2, 2014
(The shortened opening)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic, I remember it so you don't have to. Let's talk about the film that made pedophilia*... a quirk. (cut briefly to a poster for The Hangover) No, no, the other overrated one.
*Actually, since the film's protagonist is attracted to a teenager, he is classified as an ephebophile. Pedophilia is the sexual attraction to prepubescent children.
(To the sound of a ding, a poster for American Beauty appears; cut to footage of the film. The YouTube Audio Library track "Laid Back Guitars" by Kevin MacLeod plays throughout)
NC (vo): There ya go! American Beauty! Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Writer, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture of the Year, audiences nowadays can naturally only think of one thing about this movie: "1999 must've been a very slow year." And... (posters for Baby Geniuses and Inspector Gadget pop up) Yeah, okay, fair enough, but does this film deserve the backlash it's getting? Hell, is it even a backlash? People who watch it today don't typically see it as great, but they don't necessarily see it as bad, either. Kinda. Sorta. Yeah, that bag thing is really stupid now, isn't it?
NC: Ooh, with that said, there will be spoilers in this editorial, so heads up...
(Footage of the bag scene in the movie is shown)
NC (vo): ...a bag is filmed.
(A montage of clips of the film continues)
NC (vo): Needless to say, for a while, this film was a pretty big deal. Everyone liked talking about it and analyzing it, even though, by today's standards, all the things to talk about are seen as pretty heavy-handed.
(The scene of Carolyn hugging Lester's clothes in his closet is shown)
NC (vo): Hugging his clothes means she's materialistic.
(The red door on the white house is shown)
NC (vo): The red door means danger and/or lust.
(The rose petal scene is shown)
NC (vo): The flower petals mean obvious symbolism. And so on, and so forth. So, what is it people saw back then and should we dig deeper to see it today? Well, the film centers around a dead man talking about his midlife crisis when he was alive. He also somehow knows scenes that happen with the rest of his family, even though he wasn't there, but you could just say that's ghost powers or something.
(Cut to a clip of Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement)
Lady's Maid: It's a ghost! Whoo!
NC: Yeah, what she said.
(Back to American Beauty)
NC (vo): We mostly see typical suburbanites who have dreams and passions lost to the system of the status quo or wanting to fit in. Some embrace the lifestyle, but others are restless and fed up. One day, our lead decides he doesn't care anymore and is going to do whatever he wants, including quitting his job, getting high, and yes, sexually chasing a high school student. Not only a student, but a friend of his daughter, who also seems to be breaking the mold by befriending a bizarre, yet poetic...
NC: No, no, you have to see me when I say "poetic". (makes "finger quotes" while saying:) "Poetic"... See? It makes a difference.
NC (vo): ...student, who is also a drug dealer and son to a homophobe. This is not the first film to indicate that middle America is unhappy with what the American Dream claims they should be happy with. So why did this strike such a strong chord? Well, first off, it's one of the few movies seems to address both older and younger audiences. And it did a pretty good job speaking to both age groups and giving them equal time. Second, this truly was during a time when many people felt like they were part of a nothing generation.
(Cut to footage of Fight Club)
NC (vo): Hell, Fight Club came out the exact same summer, addressing the frustrations of lacking a meaningful identity.
Chuck Palahniuk: We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires and rock stars. But we won't.
NC (vo): But where Fight Club went to several extremes with this message, both visually and storywise...
(Cut back to American Beauty)
NC (vo): ...American Beauty was a little... calmer in its approach. It seemed to combine somewhat corny emotional technique you see in, say, a Spielberg or a Zemeckis movie, but added just enough of an edge to make it feel a touch more personal: its imagery pretty, its pace comfortably slow, and its actions direct, but just artistic enough so people can read a little more into it and feel a sense of accomplishment that they could even do that.
Angela Hayes: ...because there's nothing worse in life than being ordinary. (to the sound of a buzzer, the words "GET IT?" flashes on screen)
NC (vo): You know, it's kinda like that person who thinks they're into anime because they saw (cue a poster for..) Spirited Away. It's a good start, but it's not exactly knowing anime; there's a bit more to it. But back then, it was a nice feeling when people felt they could be a little artsy every once in a while, even if it was... very little compared to other art house films.
Buddy Kane: According to her, I'm too focused on my career. As if being driven to succeed is some sort of character flaw. (again, the words "GET IT?" flashes on screen to a buzzer)
NC (vo): Because of this, people were a lot more accepting of a man who is openly pursuing an underage girl. They recognize him as doing wrong, but at the same time, sympathize with what led him to this state. Think about that: how many mainstream, big hit films star a pedophile* as your identifiable hero? And to the character's credit, he doesn't go through with it. He does wake up and realize he was doing something that he should have no part of. But oddly enough, that's not what most people have issues with in the movie. The biggest argument a lot of folks have is that it's pretentious. Case in point: the kid who films everything and sees beauty everywhere, especially claiming that a dancing bag is the most beautiful thing he saw.
*Again, since he is attracted to a teenager, he is classified as an ephebophile. Pedophilia is the sexual attraction to prepubescent children.
Ricky Fitts: Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world... I feel like I can't take it.
NC: Yeah... We bought it in the film because there's nice music and an obviously prepared speech. But if it happened in real life, you'd probably be afraid of this guy. Hell, this could just as easily be seen in a horror movie. Just change the music up a bit.
(The scene with Ricky and the dancing bag is shown again, this time with creepy music out of a horror movie playing)
Ricky Fitts: (over the music) Like a little kid, begging me to play with it. I can always hear it. But... I need to remember. Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world... I feel like I can't take it.
NC (vo): The narration seems a little full of itself, too, as if the film has all the answers with how to make your life happy. You just don't see it yet.
Lester Burnham: (narrating) And I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry, you will someday.
NC (vo): That's a pretty pompous thing to boast when you get down to it, but at the same time, you get the feeling the film means well. It doesn't indicate there's necessarily good guys or bad guys, they're just people trying to find their way. So really, it doesn't seem... too bad, but nevertheless, there's a reason so many people have labeled this film as uber-preachy. Where many today see the subject and tone as more middle-of-the-road, at the time, it was seen as kind of daring.
NC: Or at least... daring enough.
NC (vo): I'm not for white suburban adults and high schoolers to have a comforting outlet for their growing insecurities in a... not particularly hostile environment. So, should it be ignored? Is it just a forgettable product of the times? Well, in my opinion, yes and no. It is a product of the times, but not one that should necessarily be forgotten.
(Cut to footage of Fight Club)
NC (vo): Where something like Fight Club keeps coming back, generation after generation, because it takes chances with its clever extremes, and what American elements will never truly go away...
(Back to American Beauty)
NC (vo): ...American Beauty is distinctly what middle-class America was thinking and feeling at that time. Since then, we've had events like 9/11, the Iraq War, the economic crash, and of course the technological boom of online media and portable devices. There's probably much more options now more than ever for creating a distinct identity. It's not even that big an issue anymore.
(Cut to footage of Men, Women & Children)
NC (vo): That is, if there are other films we'll probably tackle in the near future, but that's another issue.
(Back to American Beauty)
NC (vo): American Beauty has indeed become dated, but it's in the same way something like...
(Cut to footage of...)
NC (vo): ...Easy Rider is dated. It's so rich in the emotions of the time period it's representing that it's actually kind of intriguing.
(Cut back once more to American Beauty)
NC (vo): It's interesting to see what mainstream audiences related to here and what it says about when it was made. Where most films we remember are timeless and live on forever, this one grants one distinct bundle of time, and shows it not just in its words, but in its style.
NC (vo): Many movies since this have tried to capture the beauty as well as the eerieness of pastel America. We've also seen the fed-up suburbanite wanting to break the mold a lot more after this film...
(Another quick movie image montage is shown: The Ice Storm, The Hours, and God Bless America)
NC (vo): ...to a point where it's almost become a cliche.
(Back once more to American Beauty)
NC (vo): Though passe by today's standards, American Beauty did help give an identity to a lot of people who were searching for one, even if it was just for a short period of time, and not just for adults, but for younger people, too. There were very few films then, and you could even argue, now, that both high-schoolers and middle-aged adults felt spoke to them on a personal level, like it knew what they were going through at that very moment. Given the difference in preference of both those age groups, that's pretty rare. Whether or not it'll have an impact on you now, it certainly left an impact on us then. It allows for a dated yet still fascinating movie that has a strange beauty distinctly all its own. Yeah, it may be a product of the times, but if you ever wanted to return to that time, this is the interesting little time capsule to do it with. And that definitely has to count for something. And it showed us Thora Birch's boobs.
NC: That– That ought to count for something, too. I'm the Nostalgia Critic; I remember it so you don't have to! (gets up from his chair and leaves)