Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #38
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning
Have you ever thought something was so overrated that you accidentally convinced yourself into hating it? The first time I saw American Beauty, I didn't hate it. In fact, I kind of liked it. I didn't fully understand all the hubbub about Kevin Spacey's performance, and I didn't necessarily think it deserved the acclaim it got, but I thought it was a valuable use of my two hours. But as time went by and I read more and more reviews that hailed it as an all-time classic and saw more and more references to it in analysis of other, better movies, I started to get annoyed. Then when various people whose taste in movies basically align with my own started ranking it among their ten favorite movies ever, I had to reevaluate my thoughts on it. I watched it again, and much to my own surprise, I actually liked it less the second time. I liked it so much less that I felt angered and betrayed by the fact that it was bathing in countless rays of golden praise from people whose opinions I value and even use to support my own. And that's how American Beauty became a victim of my chagrin. My thoughts that it was overrated evolved, and now I don't even like it. When someone asks me if I want to watch it, I politely decline. I know that everyone loves it, but for the life of me, I can't figure out why.
Sam Mendes' directorial debut focuses on suburban dad Lester Burnham, played competently though not virtuosically by Kevin Spacey. Lester is a somewhat archetypical slacker, depressed by his workaday life and forced to fill his inner void with marijuana, weightlifting, and masturbation. When his daughter brings home an attractive friend, she renews his interest in life, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of having sex with her. Spacey plays the role effectively creepily. And the girl is really hot, on the bright side.
Even typing the summary reminds me of what a perfectly decent movie this is, but for some reason, I just can't cope with how incredibly overrated it's become over the last eleven years. It's not like I have this problem with every movie I think is overrated. I think Pulp Fiction and Fight Club are wildly overrated, and I would never let even them sniff my personal top twenty-five, but I don't have any bottled vitriol for them either.
I think that sometimes certain art just rubs us the wrong way, and not everyone reacts to that well. Since I'm not forced to live in a house that's constantly showing American Beauty – or, perhaps for the sake of comparison, no one who hates modern art is forced to live in a house with Jackson Pollock prints on every wall – I don't have to learn to work out my differences with it. I'm allowed to hate it, and there's no reason to try to convince myself to like it. We all have people in our lives who hate art that we love, and the natural response is to be angry at them and accuse them of not understanding it. Well, maybe they don't, but why should they?
The Good: I guess I'll go with Spacey's performance here. It's not Oscar-worthy, but it is one of his better roles.
The Bad: Nothing is particularly gripping. It's a good movie that has ingrained itself in the public's mind as a great one.
The Skinny: It would never cross my mind as something to put on a Top 250 list. But, of course, it would cross a great many minds, and that's why it's (unbelievably) #38.