Every once in a while a movie becomes the toast of Hollywood, and such is the case with "American Beauty." Already it's won innumerable citations and awards, and enters this Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony with eight nominations, including Best Picture.
Most critics just can't say enough about this film. From the New York Post: "'American Beauty' is a flat-out masterpiece. Surely the best movie of the year. Indeed, an all-time classic." From Daily Variety: "This release will spark a rash of critical hosannas and play exceedingly well to sophisticated audiences." From USA Today: "['American Beauty'] brims with brilliance... a singular accomplishment... The movie is a beaut."
My wife went to see it not long ago. She walked out in disgust after twenty minutes.
As I wanted to do, except I had to file this report. The cast of characters in this sordid effort begins with Lester Burnham, a journalist who hates his work so much he manipulates his boss into firing him, blackmails the company into giving him a hefty severance package, and embarks on a change-of-life journey where he all but abandons his wife and teenage daughter while pursuing his desire for carnal relations with his teeny-bopper daughter's slutty teeny-bopper friend Angela.
Lester's wife, Carolyn, and their daughter, Jane, are no victims, however. Carolyn is a hyper-materialistic nag who's having an affair with a real-estate tycoon, while Jane discusses (with Angela) all manner of sexual activity so coarsely as to make a hardened sailor blush.
Next door to the Burnhams lives another dysfunctional family. The father is a wacko military veteran who collects Nazi memorabilia and rages against homosexuals; his seemingly lobotomized wife simply stares; and their high-school-age son Ricky is suspected of being a Peeping Tom but, thank heavens, he isn't. He's only a drug pusher. Before long, Jane's sleeping with him. Oh, yes. We do meet two other neighbors: a gay couple, Jim and Jim, who are presented - of course - as the epitome of normality.
Except for the depiction of the military veteran as being a fanatic, an utter hypocrite (the raging homophobe - surprise! - winds up making a pass at Lester), and, eventually, a murderer, no one in "American Beauty" is shown as doing anything really, well, wrong. Not Lester, the would-be pedophile. Not the adulterous Carolyn. Not the promiscuous Jane. Not the drug-dealing Ricky.
No, in Hollywood one doesn't rush to judgment about right and wrong. At most one can say, as did one critic, that the movie "explores like no other I can think of the spiritual and moral emptiness of the Me Generation's prosperity." Empty, yes. Wrong - unequivocally, morally wrong - never. Welcome to the celebration of moral relativism.
What kind of impact will a movie like "American Beauty" have on the public? Nothing does more to shape the values of our modern-day culture, particularly among the young, than does the entertainment industry. When millions upon millions of children - forget the R rating: it stops no one - attend this kind of movie, with this kind of an amoral worldview, it is folly to say it doesn't have an impact.
It's about the last thing they need, too. Casual sex and dysfunctional families are everywhere. When half of all marriages end in divorce, when two out of three black children have no fathers at home, with the numbers skyrocketing for whites as well, the idea of a nuclear family is fast becoming an exception to the rule.
Hollywood knows the power it has to shape the culture. Fortunately, if rarely, once in a while someone in that industry will step forward to exercise that influence in a positive direction, as did Steven Spielberg, whose "Schindler's List" is simply the greatest film I've ever seen or ever expect to see. What a celebration of the human spirit amidst horror! That is Hollywood at its finest, its most noble, its most beautiful, its most instructive.
Unfortunately, Spielberg is also responsible for "American Beauty." His DreamWorks company produced it and distributes it.
Hollywood needs to remember that once upon a time it was a great force for good, that once upon a time it was its signature to praise, shamelessly and joyfully, the pursuit of a virtuous society and the concept of nobility of man. It would be well for Hollywood and the film-critics' community to recognize that next week in "American Beauty" they will be honoring a movie that celebrates not virtue, but decadence; and not nobility but moral cowardice - with a hefty sprinkling of narcissism, hedonism, and anarchy to boot.