American Beauty vs. The Ref

A fallacious rumor has been sweeping the nation and I think it should end right here. American Beauty is not one of the year's best films. In fact, it is not even good.

Now I know you all think I take these things way too seriously, but I find its popular and critical endorsement disturbing. American Beauty is an obvious, simple-minded, vaunting of adolescent values (such as they are) masquerading as biting and insightful social commentary. It is a thesis on the abdication of responsibility. Its hero is a gentle, dreamy drug dealer. Its villain is a repressed... (it's supposed to be a surprise so I won't tell you now, but I guarantee you will see it coming from fifty thousand miles away). It does have a saving grace in Kevin Spacey, who has been justly lauded for his performance as an upper middle class loser. Strangely, critics and viewers have been citing this effort as an oddity in Spacey's gallery of creeps completely ignoring a better performance in better movie from five years before--The Ref.

Now much as I like The Ref, I can't call it great. In its own small, strident way, however, it kicks the quite similar American Beauty's pretentious butt, and Spacey takes a role with potentially limited scope and turns it into a tour de force--arguably his best performance to date.

The Ref is about a dysfunctional family whose lives are disrupted by a criminal who takes them hostage, and whose presence compels uncomfortable truths to the surface. American Beauty is about a dysfunctional family whose lives are disrupted by a criminal who moves in next door and whose presence compels uncomfortable truths to the surface. In each, Kevin Spacey plays a family patriarch keenly disappointed in the direction his life has taken, and burdened by the responsibilities he has accrued in his life. In each, he has a wife who busies herself with projects as a way to avoid day-to-day personal obligations. (Judy Davis and Annette Bening who play the wives are uncannily physically alike--just look at the photos--though Davis's hair in The Ref is wrought in all directions, a victim of her endless, directionless stress, whereas Bening's bangs hang in her eyes to indicate her blinkered perception of life; even the characters' names are similar, Caroline in The Ref, Carolyn in AB.) In each, he has an unhappy child who hates him. The crux of the difference in these parallel stories of discontent is how the characters deal with responsibility.

Kevin Spacey & Annette Benning in American Beauty

In American Beauty, it is something to be discarded as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Spacey's character Lester is miserable in his job in an ad agency (jobs in advertising have become in movies a quick and easy means of identifying characters as morally bankrupt sellouts), so he uses blackmail and the sleaziest of threats to force his employers to release him with a year's severance pay. Nostalgic for his teen years, he finds work flipping burgers in a local fast food joint. Of all teen pastimes, why would Lester choose the greasiest, most tedious, socially reviled one of all? It's not like he pierced his nose and eyebrow and got acool job at Tower; he voluntarily donned the paper hat, the international symbol of the bottom rung of employability, and work to which nobody ever willingly returned.

Lester then resumes a pot habit and engages in a workout regimen with the sole purpose of seducing his teenage daughter's jailbait friend. In abandoning this last goal due to another wildly improbable, yet utterly predictable, revelation, the movie would have you believe Lester has achieved a high level of morality; but a failure to commit statutory rape is an abysmally low standard of behavior, and the last minute restraint plays like dramatic chicken droppings. Humbert Humbert never looked so good.

Kevin Spacey & Judy Davis in The Ref

In contrast, Spacey's Lloyd from The Ref labors as an indentured servant in his usurer mother's antique shop (which could connote an unnatural attachment to the idea of things and values of the past). It's a superficially less humiliating work than fast food, but he is every bit as much a wage slave. So why does he put up with it? In frustration he explains, "...someone has to be responsible. I'd love to run around and take classes and play with my inner-self! I'd love the freedom to be some pissed-off criminal with no responsibilities, except I don't have the time! But you don't see me with a gun. And you don't see me sleeping with someone else. You think my life turned out the way I wanted because I live in this house? You think every morning I wake up, look in the mirror and say 'Gee I'm glad I'm me and not some 19-year-old billionaire rock star with the body of an athlete and a 24-hour erection!' No I don't! So just excuse the [expletive deleted] out of me!" Lloyd may be embittered by life, but he is unwilling to use his discontent as a justification for antisocial behavior of his own or that of others. Except for the non-stop fighting with his wife.

The conceit in The Ref is that Lloyd and Caroline are so preoccupied by their arguing that the only time they stop is when they are ordered to at gunpoint. Their battles are so notorious that their niece and nephew frankly look forward to the spectacle. Their fights are proof of an emotional engagement and commitment they would be reluctant to consciously acknowledge, but which is nevertheless so self-evident that when Caroline proclaims she will seek a divorce the whole family is stunned into silence and her brother-in-law, dumbfounded, asks, "Why?" The Burnhams in American Beauty drifted apart as quietly as the Chassuers in The Ref noisily clung together. This is not unreasonable in and of itself, but what the Cahassuers recognize as dysfunction the Burnhams embrace as the path to mental health. For instance, both Caroline and Carolyn have affairs, but whereas Caroline's is a symptom of an unsatisfactory marriage and an example of one of her randomly adopted and quickly discarded projects, Carolyn's is a joyous, liberating endeavor.

In letting a professional rival, whose acumen she has long admired, seduce her, Carolyn becomes more confident and less frigid. At her lover's suggestion, and in an obvious and insulting trope of macho empowerment, she buys a pistol and becomes a regular at the target range. She takes to the weapon as passionately as Lester did to exercise, as if to be ever more robustly male is key to a happy, settled life. Indeed, the most congenial, contented, physically fit family in the neighborhood is the gay couple next door. In the end, marital fidelity presented as just a drag, a chain, a bummer, and an impediment to the all important attainment of personal fulfillment. In fact, anything that impedes that fulfillment is demonized in American Beauty, and anything that facilitates that end is conversely elevated even if it violates social conventions, like throwing plates at the dinner table, or is blatantly illegal like surreptitiously videotaping your neighbors and trafficking in drugs.

The last two offenses are committed by the character who represents American Beauty's pure soul, Ricky the drug peddler. Like the kidnapper/thief Gus in The Ref, Ricky is a catalyst for revelation and change. But where Gus is worn down and sick of the inconveniences attached to a life of crime, Ricky only feels the oppression of law-abiding squares like his ex-Marine father, who as the most conspicuous token of civil authority in the movie is also physically abusive toward his son, implicitly responsible for his wife's near catatonic silences, and (this is the surprise I mentioned before) a repressed homosexual and murderer. AB suggests that the repression is the source of his bad acts. Why oh why couldn't he simply be free like extortionist, juvenile, would-be pedophile Lester, his adulterous wife Carolyn, or his drug dealing voyeur son Ricky? The movie envisions a naive paradise of selfishness Ayn Rand would found offensive.

The movie ends with two shattered families, one containing a murderer and the other his victim. The viewer is lead to believe Ricky will run away with Lester's daughter to New York City, which is not exactly famous for its charitable treatment of runaway teenage drug users, but a conclusion that impersonates romance. Gus also gets away at the end of The Ref. The original ending showed him getting arrested as a negative example to Lloyd and Caroline's son, a budding criminal in his own right. Although this would have been an ending that would have made the Hollywood censors of the thirties and forties proud, in this case I think it would have been a heavy handed coda to a bracingly scabrous comedy of disillusionment. The thief returns to his life and its attendant problems, the family to theirs. Lloyd and Caroline are last seen literally bound together in their house, willing, even affectionate prisoners of one another. They understand that release from each other, from their conflicts and responsibilities, is possible, but ultimately not desirable.

Now that's romantic.

(Written by Sharon C. McGovern)

From vol. 12
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