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Jewish World ReviewMarch 24, 2000 /17 Adar II, 5760

Julia Gorin

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Beautiful fraud --
"LOOK CLOSER" is right. That may be the Oscar-nominated Americam Beauty's theme, but this film's success relied on audiences who didn't. So I'm futilely hoping that on Sunday the Academy does.

Not that the movie gives you a chance to follow its imperative even in the way its makers intended. Assaulted by suburban caricatures grappling with improbable, exaggerated situations, you never get a chance to "look closer." Those turbulent rumblings of malcontent and dysfunction aren't rumblings at all, as this over-the-top film keeps little beneath the surface. For that handful of us who did manage to look closer at this tale of fear and loathing, the revelation was this: The filmmakers fear and loathe the American suburb.

What else is new? So did my Urban Politics professor, who introduced to us students the phrase "suburban sprawl" as a dirty word, pronouncing it with a prolonged hiss each time. So does Al Gore. (As people move away from the city, they become more independent and disconnected from its miseries, and big government with its social programs becomes irrelevant.) Yet we are asked---by the filmmakers, the reviewers and by exalted viewers so euphoric over their Americam Beauty experience that they've gone back two and three times---to take it for keen insight and glean a message.

But geez, a manifesto would have been more subtle.

If you're going to depict a suburban family prototype, you don't take a different issue that might be plaguing every second home in the neighborhood, add it all up, then attribute the composite condition to a single family. If the filmmakers are holding up any mirror to the suburbanites watching, it's a distorted one.

In addition to the central family's issues of materialism, mid-life crisis, miscommunication, adultery and teen scorn, there is the retired marine colonel next door---a character as absurd as it is worn-out.

Not only is Colonel Fitts a military man, he's a gun owner. Not just one gun, but a display case full of them. More than his guns are on display: So is the Nazi chinaware he's into. In his free time, he watches old army movies. Not just any army movies, but ones starring Ronald Reagan. Incidentally, this Reagan-Hitler disciple beats his son. Not only beats him, but tests his urine for drugs. What's more, the ex-marine is a homophobe. Not an ordinary homophobe, but a homophobe who, as it happens, is a repressed homosexual. (Rendering gays in the military a non-issue?) His wife is catatonic, as a military man's wife could only be.

Finally, the fascist hater-batterer is also a murderer, serving ultimately as the movie's true villain---a prop inserted to provide the film with its deus ex machina resolution, as well as its public service announcement against guns. (In case you didn't get it --- and lest you think there be only one rogue gun---after the deed is done, the camera pans to the open gun display, where the culprit's brothers and sisters still rest: It could have been any one of them. They are all guilty.)

In contrast, the most functional characters in this tale of dysfunction are an idyllic gay couple named Jim and Jim; its heroes are a young pot dealer and a married pedophiliac (who despite this quirk is still a good guy because he draws the line at teen virgins). Compared to an intolerant, murderous, Nazi-intrigued brute, what's so wrong? Better to be an adulterer or drug dealer than a military man. This is bold film-making?

The only ground this film breaks is it sets the record for Hollywood formula: Military: bad; corporate America: bad; nuclear family: bad; guns: bad; suburbia: bad; homosexuality: good; drugs: good; adultery: normal; irresponsibility: so what; pedophilia: could be fun. Indeed, this flick puts the science into the formula.

It also makes it possible for city-dwellers to leave theaters feeling better about their own flawed existences and compromised morality. One viewer said he and his company felt "liberated" after they'd "witnessed" the price of suburban living.

Scene from Americam Beauty
"Beauty" has you believing that it is the dream of the typical tied-down, middle-aged man to quit his job, get high, and fornicate with 16-year-olds. It even has you cheering for him.

But I doubt most suburbanites feel very oppressed by their jobs, which afford them the comfort of showing up in luxury cars rather than cramped subways. Most likely, the electronic gadgets, furniture and vacations they spend their money on aren't a cover-up for disturbed family life.

So they don't spend their time writing screenplays and novels or making art out of elephant dung. Scorn the suburbs if you will, but someone has to earn and consume to keep the economy moving (and subsidize the excesses of the cities---as the 'burbs are often forced to do, like parents bailing out irresponsible children). Just because Hollywood says this materialism is a veil for sinister goings-on doesn't make it so.

I suspect that cities have far more 40- to 70- year-olds dating teenagers than suburbs do. I was propositioned by half of them when I turned 17 and moved to New York, where the deviants are more concentrated---and unabashed. Nor did I realize that the threshold of decency could be brought as low as I've seen accepted in the city. Or that the word "normal" is un-definable, as my chic new acquaintances promptly advised me when I labeled something as being other than.

In promoting the film, Annette Bening said that none of us can truly detach ourselves from any of its characters. Naturally, she and her ilk would like to think so. Because Beauty's suburban affliction is a deflection from Hollywood's own.

The much touted Americam Beauty stands in stark contrast to its much ignored counterpart, "Magnolia," which demonstrates that adultery hurts, drugs and pedophilia damage, and that our actions have consequences. It's a safe bet that fans of one movie are not fans of the other.

Uncomfortable with the message that not all is forgivable, however, Hollywood has chosen not to recognize a movie that bases its message in real life rather than cartoon. The movie of the year is one the glitterati feel more at home with---one about themselves.

At the same time, the fact that this stale script took the lucky detour it did on its way to the slush pile is testament to Hollywood's hunger to loathe the traditional family, the suburbs--in short, the American Dream.

My immigrant mother compared Americam Beauty to the sort of film she'd expect from a foreign director who, while talented, harbors a good deal of contempt for America. If American Beauty sweeps the Oscars, we'll be admitting as much about ourselves.

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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03/19/99: The Thin Yellow Line
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07/30/98: Kofi Annan's crimes against sensibility
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01/08/98: In defense of the appetizing shiksa

© 2000, Julia Gorin