For a film that won five Oscars (and five big ones too) American Beauty has become surprisingly underrated over the last few years. Now seen (and hated) as an outdated product of the nineties, people look at the dark-comedy classic the same as Forest Gump, or Crash: over done and over sold (I disagree of course).….and though I can’t argue that it is definitely of it’s time, I’ve never seen being able to tell when a film was made as a negative.
But whether American Beauty is still a great film is not what I’m here to talk about, I’m here to talk about why along with the likes of Friday and Dazed and Confused, American Beauty is a classic stoner film, only made better by the smoking of our little green friend.
And I don’t just say that because it has pot in it, because it is smoked on screen, but because of how it’s used in the film and relates to its themes and story. It represents freedom (of course): almost every character in the film is seen smoking at some point and it’s always at moments of great discovery or triumph, when they manage, in big or small ways, to break out of the prisons they live in. It’s a liberating force.
Lester smokes a joint, then that night stands up to his wife for the first time in years. Jane smokes, and she begins to see beyond Ricky’s demeanor leading to their romance. Carolyn fucks the real estate king then has a big’ol spliff. They finally do something about their problems. And doesn’t that bag monologue (which I legitimately find poignant (though the amazing score helps) make a whole load more sense when you realize Ricky is blazed off his ass? Sometimes you need to see things at an angle to really see them…
It’s a very progressive message for a 90s film of its kind, to paint the plant not just as the childish pastime of kids and wastoids, but as a welcome tool to survive the conformity of the suburban day to day, and escape it.
But it’s not just its use in the movie that makes it a great stoner film; it’s a surprising blast to watch too! Being the closest thing to a comedy to win Best Picture, you really feel the humor in the film when high. In the dark satirical wit a lot of the characters speak in, but especially Spacey’s incredibly deadpan and schmucky delivery which always brings the chuckles, except when he gets dark and you see the layers of Frank Underwood already take root.
But it’s not just the humor you get into. As fun as it is to smoke and just zoink out on life, using it to open yourself up, to be fully engaged by something is even more satisfying, and the drama and darkness that bubbles beneath American Beauty like boiling tar is made even more potent and relatable.
From every drippingly dry line, to every sentimental word and look, your pulled into the tragedy of it all, all the lies and broken dreams that have constructed themselves into an idea of a good life. You see so much closer… through the mystic green haze.
People seem to hate American Beauty as by today’s sensibilities it’s just another film about white guys having white guy problems, like we need any more of those. And it is; that is what American Beauty is about, the secret horrors of the suburban middle class, and it’s one of the best ones at it.
It’s the film that perfected what so many of the countless other middle aged white men problem films, like Fight Club and The Ice Storm, were trying to say and do. And just because it kind of set the trend of those films off doesn’t mean it should be hated for it; people don’t hate Harry Potter for starting this whole YA novel craze (well not yet they don’t).
People forget the context the film was made in: it feels and deals with dated issues because that’s what was timely seventeen years ago (though I think it still holds some relevance today), these where the issues and problems in the back of everyone’s mind, and this film brought them to the surface, like a more friendly Blue Velvet. Is is a subtle film? Not always. But is America always subtle?
Give it another ten years and I bet everyone will have come round again, and like Rebel Without a Cause, Apocalypse Now, and many before it, it will be looked upon as a staple of that era of American history, and a large block in the up-hill fight for weed legalisation.
So next time you feel like time traveling to an era where adults acted like kids, kids like adults, and no one knew what they wanted anymore; light up a blunt and be ready to laugh, cry, and be moved at the funny little tragedy that is American Beauty.