"American Beauty" and "Fight Club," two early contenders in the Oscar stakes this year, are technically dazzling, but intellectually empty and spiritually corrosive. The fact that they are being embraced by the Hollywood and critical communities is telling.
Though the numbing and pointless brutality of "Fight Club" is fostering some backlash, "American Beauty" is easily the most highly praised movie of the year. But while it doesn't have the gore quotient of "Fight Club," in many ways it is the uglier of the two.
Despite the lush trappings of American suburban success, the Burnhams are a family in crisis. Lester (Kevin Spacey) is a loser, and the only people who despise him for it more than he does himself, are his frustrated but ambitious realtor wife, Carolyn (Annette Benning) and his self loathing-- though pretty-- daughter, Jane (Thora Birch).
Lester has a moment of revelation when he begins to fantasize about Jane's dirty talking cheerleader friend, (Mena Suvari), and he "liberates" himself by throwing off his "hypocritical" facades-- including his dehumanizing corporate job, and any pretense that he cares about anything but his own appetites-- and pursuing Angela.
Meanwhile, Carolyn starts an affair with a big shot realtor (Peter Gallagher) and Jane begins a romance with the weird new neighbor boy Ricky (a wooden Wes Bentley) who has been stalking her with a video camera. Right, THAT'S what would happen.
Ricky is presented as the most together character in this movie. He's a pot dealer who supplies the newly liberated Lester, to the dismay of his paranoid, brutal Marine father Col. Fitts (Chris Cooper).
"American Beauty" revels in depravity. It's message is the very Clintonesque idea that as long as you don't pretend to be good, it's okay if you're a slimeball. Just make sure you are pursuing self- actualization. Particularly disturbing is the way the young women are sexualized in this movie. Though intellectually we know actresses Thora Birch and Men Suvari are over 18, their characters are much younger; and the audience is invited to be turned on by the children they are playing.
The wannabe subversive messages are presented in a series of leftist culture war cliches, with cynicism is so obvious that supposedly surprising turns of character or plot are telegraphed well in advance. This movie has an air of portentousness, but it doesn't make satirical points about suburban foibles nearly as well as the average "Simpsons" episode.
Director Sam Mendes presents some memorable images, and moments of Kubrick class clarity, but the whole does not hang together. The same can be said of the performances (other than Bentley's) which are good individually, but often seem as though they belong in separate movies.
"Fight Club" has a similar theme of throwing off the shackles of dehumanizing corporate life, and pursuing self fulfillment. The brilliant Edward Norton plays the Narrator, a man so numbed by his insurance claims job that he has no real identity left.
The movie begins promisingly enough with an office setting that is nearly as intimidating as the one in the classic "The Apartment," and some deft satire in Norton's search for meaning by attending various self-help groups for people with terminal illnesses.
But the movie goes seriously awry when he meets a Tyler Durden, (Brad Pitt) a rebel who is his opposite in every way. Their solution to the emptiness of life is to get other disillusioned men together and beat the snot out of one another! This begins a repetitive, brutal and unimaginative series of beatings, while spouting rhetoric that combines Susan Faludi and Neitzche. Then Tyler begins assembling an army of brownshirts, and things get laughably ludicrous-- including a twist that is as stupid as the one in "The Sixth Sense" is brilliant.
Norton is very good, but Pitt's performance has been over rated merely because it runs against type. Director David Fincher has managed to outdo the sadism he displayed in "Seven," his other over rated effort.
Like the Jazz writers who helped ruin the art they covered in the mid-1960s by snubbing anything with a melody, the critics who slobber over these twisted, horrifying movies are promoting cynical shock/schlock as intellect. Praising this garbage is what makes people say things like "I read the reviews, and do the opposite of what they recommend."