Only Disconnect American Beauty is a swindle that exposes the naivete of the critics who praise it, the people who fall for it. In return, they get the smug comfort of satisfying cynical views of suburbia, teenagers, wives, husbands, business, homosexuality, technology, violence?the all-American cliches. Superior movies such as the new satirical Breakfast of Champions and the humanist Mumford haven't rung the zeitgeist gong because they refuse a package deal?alibis for middle-class arrogance. Instead of glossing what's wrong with American life through facile symbolic characters, directors Alan Rudolph and Lawrence Kasdan enter the fray and dramatize the confusions that keep people apart and make social changes frightening.
Although American Beauty pushes liberal buttons labeled Feminism, Gun Control, Homophobia, it also insidiously promotes affluence, segregation, disengagement. Breakfast of Champions and Mumford are based on rock-bottom recognition of shared social crises. It's not so simple as saying, "Everyone's screwed up," but understanding that, at heart, people want something more than money and status. American Beauty doesn't disturb privileged people's discontent; like them, the hero Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is upset because he doesn't have enough. Breakfast of Champions and Mumford suggest that what modern America has in surfeit?the illusion of progress?is too much for disquieted souls to bear.
Mumford's charm comes from the homey twist it gives to the notion of psychotherapy as the answer to society's ills. Loren Dean plays a small-town therapist who'll listen to his client's fantasies and complaints until they become petulant and overly narcissistic. He disrupts their self-indulgence (the way critics ought to have cried foul on American Beauty) to pull them back to reality, insisting they communicate and maintain personal consciousness. Kasdan's use of a prepossessing, commonsense shrink is basically an analysis of the strictures of friendship. Young Dr. Mumford's professionalism is less effective than his likably open, youthful face. His patients trust him, despite being new to a town that suspiciously bears his name, because he never cons them. "You're mean," says the sex-obsessed pharmacist Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince) when Mumford aborts his daydream; this victim of arrested development recognizes the care and respect behind his listener's impatience. Mumford seems a self-empowering healer, although all he does is give the frustrated housewife Althea (Mary McDonnell), the magazine-addicted teen Nessa (Zooey Deschanel), the local computer magnate Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee) and the listless ingenue Sofie (Hope Davis) rigorous reminders of their human worth.
This fantasy, almost in a Capra mode, is the antidote to the Hollywood gullibility enshrined in Albert Brooks' The Muse, but Kasdan also develops some of the folksiness of Robert Benton's Nobody's Fool. Mumford's friendship with Skip grows from the sincerity of their conversations?unstressed, affectionate revelations in which each young man volleys his emotions and guilelessly trades ideas. This is a rare accomplishment on the big screen?the best writing and directing Kasdan has ever done. Each character's halting fear of expression and action is conveyed as a physical need?Skip's skateboarding through town and his computer complex; Follett's recounting his masturbatory fantasies; Deschanel and McDonnell's tense moments of thwarted passion; and Davis' conflicted emergence from fear, a marvel of slowly dawning self-acceptance.
Despite the contrivance in these conversions, the communication Kasdan captures feels authentic; it's helped enormously by Dean's casual, alert manner. I'll resist saying blond, smiley Dean has an "all-American" face; that term is either racist or obsolete?and Kasdan knows it. So he highlights Dean's (Mumford's) robust caginess, a combination of healthy, boy-scout radiance and blunt honesty. Mumford seems to be always thinking, responding, noticing people and the circumstances around him. This makes him a more engaging figure than the hero of Rushmore, whose cunning appealed to the vengeful smart-aleck in viewers. Doc Mumford shares the town's name, epitomizing the social element it desperately needs: compassionate self-confidence, not the egotistical conquest American Beauty celebrates even in Lester's death. When two other therapists become suspicious of Mumford's methods, leading to his investigation and indictment, Kasdan avoids Capraesque hokum. There's no populist courtroom rescue?Mumford's judge is angry and punishing, and even his neighbor Lily (Alfre Woodard) advises him to take his lumps. This well-meaning good guy, dodging panic himself, pays his dues as only good people do in a corrupted nation. Kasdan's uncorrupted conceit doesn't falsify sacrifice and commitment; watching Mumford maneuver among the idealized small town's malcontents accounts for the film's many endearing surprises and insights.
Without American Beauty's smooth, accomplished surface to hide its superficiality, Mumford takes a while to establish whimsy and get where it's going. Kasdan starts off with an analysand's cliche (presumably universal) fantasy as fatuous as Body Heat. But that's a conventional mistake; it is not?like all of American Beauty?a miscalculation. There, director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball don't evince genuine American paranoia (the fear of friendlessness that haunts Mumford), they disgrace it. Their opening scene?a teenage girl on videotape asking her boyfriend to kill her father?takes place in Christina Ricciland, faking toughness. It goes against the cynical logic of the rest of the movie's dead man's narration. This nihilistic games-playing rejects humanism for easy neo-noir cliches?a patina of middlebrow concerns now rewarded by reviewers proud of their own middle-class sentiments.
Nothing exposes that better than the great cinematographer Conrad Hall being reduced to Elizabeth Arden red-door lighting designs, distended, secondhand steals from The World According to Garp and yet another overscaled, miscast performance by Kevin Spacey as the only heterosexual adult male in his suburb. Spacey's ham-on-wry acting certifies the film's phoniness. Compare this laughable performance to the beleaguered men brought to life by Om Puri in My Son the Fanatic and Matthew Broderick in the great, already forgotten Election?or Nick Nolte stressing about his character's questionable sexuality in Breakfast of Champions. From Lester's troubles in bed with his wife to his workplace frustration and unlikely revenge, American Beauty's the least convincing movie this year, and that lack of credulousness is somehow a sign of contempt. Presenting a trite character's trite dilemmas distracts from real ones. Lester's rose-petal fantasies about a high school cheerleader are elaborated like Jeff Bridges' The Dude (another 60s reprobate like pot-smoking Lester) in The Big Lebowski, except the Coen brothers know where to put a laugh; so did Alexander Payne in Election. British-born Sam Mendes doesn't.
American Beauty's glossy solemnity lends absurd cache to boomer petulance. It belongs to that category of phony classics like Midnight Cowboy and Ordinary People that pretend to deal with serious issues by plasticizing them. Mendes' kicker is a video-crazed psycho-teen who spies on Lester's family and sees beauty in death and grace in the pixelvision of a floating plastic bag. It's a tv-level tragedy, fit for pretentious kids or moviegoers who don't know crap when they step in it.
Breakfast of Champions directed by Alan Rudolph Spacey plays a bogus Everyman, but when it all goes wrong for Midland City's leading citizen Dwayne Hoover, everyone else in town, under sway of his car lot tv commercials, is in trouble, too. Breakfast of Champions focuses on Hoover for what is essentially a rebuke of television?the institutional hard-sell of American capitalism. This seemed a nifty idea when Kurt Vonnegut published the novel 25 years ago; now American Beauty sells a newfangled tv-inspired myth that is itself a facetious ad for soulessness. Like the tv-saturated Pleasantville, American Beauty allows people to enjoy their tv illusions while scoffing at them. It's the same sham as The Truman Show. Rudolph sees the root of tv's slick, juvenile pseudo-seriousness and explodes it, as Oliver Stone did in the amazing first half of Natural Born Killers.
But because Rudolph is also a poet of subconscious distress, this loony-bin extravaganza enriches Vonnegut's satire with moments of startling pop-art pathos: Hoover (Bruce Willis) starts his day with suicidal depression that's superimposed over the tv screen that transfixes his spaced-out wife (Barbara Hershey). Rudolph's approach is inspired by the media overload drowning out individual Americans' panic. Commercials inveigle all Breakfast of Champions' characters?prisoners, shut-ins, coworkers, businessmen, artists, et al. ("TV helps me relax," someone coos during foreplay.) Advertising slogans inflect thought and habit. ("You don't have to be crazy to work here but it helps," reads a poster above the desk of Hoover's secretary-mistress.) And everywhere the story roams?from Hoover's midlife crisis to the final odyssey of Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), an aging, decrepit sci-fi writer invited to address Midland City's first arts fair because of his obscure scribblings about mankind's destruction?billboards and business signs overwhelm the landscape, affront the senses. Yet no one's directed toward understanding, happiness or wholeness.
Rudolph's carnival of modern chaos critiques Western decay. It may work best for those familiar enough with arguments against the dehumanizing aspects of television and capitalism to catch the piquancy of each flailing archetype: go-getter Hoover, soothsayer Trout, the alienated spouse, the people-pleasing employee (Glenne Headly), the repressed flunky (Nick Nolte), the ex-con zealot (Omar Epps) and the naive artist offspring (Lukas Haas). Their swirling hysteria demonstrates world-gone-wrong anxiety. It's nothing Rudolph (and Vonnegut) just discovered; they've been thinking and working too long to settle for slick pronouncements or glib panaceas. And Rudolph's mind clicks faster, more subtly, than most filmmakers'. He starts at the point of oblivion American Beauty eventually arrives at, then takes off. Breakfast of Champions plays as a series of apocalyptic comedy routines, neurotic monologues bouncing off each other, sportive music by Mark Isham and assorted witty graphemes (a naked woman stretched across Hoover's brain coils and sentences orbiting around his head). These ultimately reveal Americans' frustrated hope. That's the awesome realization of each comic-heartbreaking Rudolph film (1997's Afterglow and 1993's Equinox the finest of a dazzling bunch).
Breakfast of Champions offers the key Rudolph image. As Trout hitchhikes toward Midland City, he looks in a diesel truck's sideview mirror: His face stares out against a background reflection of a vast rocky canyon with a fantasy of tropical palms and beach supered underneath. Rudolph then zooms closer to Trout in contemplation, holding in his head those contradictory images of harsh reality and balmy desire, feeling them.
All of Breakfast of Champions is that terse, complicated and poignant. Different from the leisurely panoply Altman might have made of the novel (his 1975 Nashville already absorbed and surpassed Vonnegut's themes), this is yet as imaginative and conscientious an adaptation a zeitgeist novel could receive. Gus Van Sant's film of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues failed from poor craft and seriously uneven acting. And not even Rudolph's craft can redeem Bruce Willis, who simply isn't good enough in the central role. But thankfully he's outacted by Nolte and Finney; one finds comic depth in shame, the other in longing?a spiritual link to the characters in Mumford. "Make me young," Trout pleads; he's not just old but fatigued from traversing the hell of our cultural pollution. He crosses a River Styx of detritus Hoover, also seeking love and solace, must follow. Their sojourn doesn't resolve America's problems, but defines them. They suggest a necessary paraphrase of E.M. Forster: Only disconnect the tv.
Clipped Excess Baggage. Leonard Cohen's jeremiad The Future contained the lines, "I'm stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay/I'm junk but I'm still holding up this little wild bouquet" (the song "Democracy"). Seven years later it's hard to believe critics are taking Sam Mendes' paltry little symbol of that white plastic bag twirling in the wind as an image of something meaningful or touching or ineffable. It's ridiculous. After all, Cohen's garbage-bag image expressed chagrin (a distance on pathos); the natural, lively, humanist hope he clings to is symbolized by that "little wild bouquet." How shabby and risible is American Beauty's plastic bag. And of course, it's white. Only Mumford and Breakfast of Champions show a multiracial America; plus, those films convey a semblance of contemporary pain, while Mendes' stylization acts as an emotional prophylactic.
Apparently Spielberg "discovered" director Mendes; he's got a lot to answer for. With the exception of In Dreams, this year's DreamWorks movies have been garbage. ("It's here the family's broken/And it's here the lonely say/That the heart has got to open in a fundamental way"?another great Cohen line that quashes American Beauty.) It seems Spielberg admired Mendes' recent Broadway productions The Blue Room, in which Nicole Kidman bares her ass, and the current revival of Cabaret Mendes "ingeniously" decided to stage in a nightclub rather than just recreate a club within a proscenium. That's how clever Mendes is. He'd do a remake of The Searchers and have us watch it in a desert, not allowing for the imaginative projection of art. American Beauty is full of that same kind of insipidness.