Only Disconnect Although American Beauty Mumford’s charm This fantasy, almost in Despite the contrivance Without American Beauty’s Nothing exposes that better American Beauty’s Breakfast of Champions But because Rudolph is also Rudolph’s carnival Breakfast of Champions All of Breakfast of Champions Clipped Apparently Spielberg "discovered"
Beauty is a swindle that exposes the naivete of the
critics who praise it, the people who fall for it. In return, they get the smug
comfort of satisfying cynical views of suburbia, teenagers, wives, husbands,
business, homosexuality, technology, violence–the all-American cliches.
Superior movies such as the new satirical Breakfast of Champions and the humanist
Mumford haven’t rung the zeitgeist gong because they refuse a package deal–alibis
for middle-class arrogance. Instead of glossing what’s wrong with American
life through facile symbolic characters, directors Alan Rudolph and Lawrence
Kasdan enter the fray and dramatize the confusions that keep people apart and
make social changes frightening.
pushes liberal buttons labeled Feminism, Gun Control, Homophobia, it also insidiously
promotes affluence, segregation, disengagement. Breakfast of Champions and
Mumford are based on rock-bottom recognition of shared social crises. It’s
not so simple as saying, "Everyone’s screwed up," but understanding
that, at heart, people want something more than money and status. American
Beauty doesn’t disturb privileged people’s discontent; like them,
the hero Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is upset because he doesn’t have
enough. Breakfast of Champions and Mumford suggest that what modern
America has in surfeit–the illusion of progress–is too much for disquieted
souls to bear.
comes from the homey twist it gives to the notion of psychotherapy as the answer
to society’s ills. Loren Dean plays a small-town therapist who’ll
listen to his client’s fantasies and complaints until they become petulant
and overly narcissistic. He disrupts their self-indulgence (the way critics
ought to have cried foul on American Beauty) to pull them back to reality,
insisting they communicate and maintain personal consciousness. Kasdan’s
use of a prepossessing, commonsense shrink is basically an analysis of the strictures
of friendship. Young Dr. Mumford’s professionalism is less effective than
his likably open, youthful face. His patients trust him, despite being new to
a town that suspiciously bears his name, because he never cons them. "You’re
mean," says the sex-obsessed pharmacist Follett (Pruitt Taylor Vince) when
Mumford aborts his daydream; this victim of arrested development recognizes
the care and respect behind his listener’s impatience. Mumford seems a
self-empowering healer, although all he does is give the frustrated housewife
Althea (Mary McDonnell), the magazine-addicted teen Nessa (Zooey Deschanel),
the local computer magnate Skip Skipperton (Jason Lee) and the listless ingenue
Sofie (Hope Davis) rigorous reminders of their human worth.
a Capra mode, is the antidote to the Hollywood gullibility enshrined in Albert
Brooks’ The Muse, but Kasdan also develops some of the folksiness
of Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool. Mumford’s friendship
with Skip grows from the sincerity of their conversations–unstressed, affectionate
revelations in which each young man volleys his emotions and guilelessly trades
ideas. This is a rare accomplishment on the big screen–the best writing
and directing Kasdan has ever done. Each character’s halting fear of expression
and action is conveyed as a physical need–Skip’s skateboarding through
town and his computer complex; Follett’s recounting his masturbatory fantasies;
Deschanel and McDonnell’s tense moments of thwarted passion; and Davis’
conflicted emergence from fear, a marvel of slowly dawning self-acceptance.
in these conversions, the communication Kasdan captures feels authentic; it’s
helped enormously by Dean’s casual, alert manner. I’ll resist saying
blond, smiley Dean has an "all-American" face; that term is either
racist or obsolete–and Kasdan knows it. So he highlights Dean’s (Mumford’s)
robust caginess, a combination of healthy, boy-scout radiance and blunt honesty.
Mumford seems to be always thinking, responding, noticing people and the circumstances
around him. This makes him a more engaging figure than the hero of Rushmore,
whose cunning appealed to the vengeful smart-aleck in viewers. Doc Mumford shares
the town’s name, epitomizing the social element it desperately needs: compassionate
self-confidence, not the egotistical conquest American Beauty celebrates
even in Lester’s death. When two other therapists become suspicious of
Mumford’s methods, leading to his investigation and indictment, Kasdan
avoids Capraesque hokum. There’s no populist courtroom rescue–Mumford’s
judge is angry and punishing, and even his neighbor Lily (Alfre Woodard) advises
him to take his lumps. This well-meaning good guy, dodging panic himself, pays
his dues as only good people do in a corrupted nation. Kasdan’s uncorrupted
conceit doesn’t falsify sacrifice and commitment; watching Mumford maneuver
among the idealized small town’s malcontents accounts for the film’s
many endearing surprises and insights.
smooth, accomplished surface to hide its superficiality, Mumford takes
a while to establish whimsy and get where it’s going. Kasdan starts off
with an analysand’s cliche (presumably universal) fantasy as fatuous as
Body Heat. But that’s a conventional mistake; it is not–like
all of American Beauty–a miscalculation. There, director Sam Mendes
and writer Alan Ball don’t evince genuine American paranoia (the fear of
friendlessness that haunts Mumford), they disgrace it. Their opening
scene–a teenage girl on videotape asking her boyfriend to kill her father–takes
place in Christina Ricciland, faking toughness. It goes against the cynical
logic of the rest of the movie’s dead man’s narration. This nihilistic
games-playing rejects humanism for easy neo-noir cliches–a patina of middlebrow
concerns now rewarded by reviewers proud of their own middle-class sentiments.
than the great cinematographer Conrad Hall being reduced to Elizabeth Arden
red-door lighting designs, distended, secondhand steals from The World According
to Garp and yet another overscaled, miscast performance by Kevin Spacey
as the only heterosexual adult male in his suburb. Spacey’s ham-on-wry
acting certifies the film’s phoniness. Compare this laughable performance
to the beleaguered men brought to life by Om Puri in My Son the Fanatic
and Matthew Broderick in the great, already forgotten Election–or
Nick Nolte stressing about his character’s questionable sexuality in Breakfast
of Champions. From Lester’s troubles in bed with his wife to his workplace
frustration and unlikely revenge, American Beauty’s the least convincing
movie this year, and that lack of credulousness is somehow a sign of contempt.
Presenting a trite character’s trite dilemmas distracts from real ones.
Lester’s rose-petal fantasies about a high school cheerleader are elaborated
like Jeff Bridges’ The Dude (another 60s reprobate like pot-smoking Lester)
in The Big Lebowski, except the Coen brothers know where to put a laugh;
so did Alexander Payne in Election. British-born Sam Mendes doesn’t.
glossy solemnity lends absurd cache to boomer petulance. It belongs to that
category of phony classics like Midnight Cowboy and Ordinary People
that pretend to deal with serious issues by plasticizing them. Mendes’
kicker is a video-crazed psycho-teen who spies on Lester’s family and sees
beauty in death and grace in the pixelvision of a floating plastic bag. It’s
a tv-level tragedy, fit for pretentious kids or moviegoers who don’t know
crap when they step in it.
directed by Alan Rudolph
Spacey plays a bogus Everyman,
but when it all goes wrong for Midland City’s leading citizen Dwayne Hoover,
everyone else in town, under sway of his car lot tv commercials, is in trouble,
too. Breakfast of Champions focuses on Hoover for what is essentially a rebuke
of television–the institutional hard-sell of American capitalism. This
seemed a nifty idea when Kurt Vonnegut published the novel 25 years ago; now
American Beauty sells a newfangled tv-inspired myth that is itself a facetious
ad for soulessness. Like the tv-saturated Pleasantville, American Beauty allows
people to enjoy their tv illusions while scoffing at them. It’s the same
sham as The Truman Show. Rudolph sees the root of tv’s slick, juvenile
pseudo-seriousness and explodes it, as Oliver Stone did in the amazing first
half of Natural Born Killers.
a poet of subconscious distress, this loony-bin extravaganza enriches Vonnegut’s
satire with moments of startling pop-art pathos: Hoover (Bruce Willis) starts
his day with suicidal depression that’s superimposed over the tv screen
that transfixes his spaced-out wife (Barbara Hershey). Rudolph’s approach
is inspired by the media overload drowning out individual Americans’ panic.
Commercials inveigle all Breakfast of Champions’ characters–prisoners,
shut-ins, coworkers, businessmen, artists, et al. ("TV helps me relax,"
someone coos during foreplay.) Advertising slogans inflect thought and habit.
("You don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps," reads
a poster above the desk of Hoover’s secretary-mistress.) And everywhere
the story roams–from Hoover’s midlife crisis to the final odyssey
of Kilgore Trout (Albert Finney), an aging, decrepit sci-fi writer invited to
address Midland City’s first arts fair because of his obscure scribblings
about mankind’s destruction–billboards and business signs overwhelm
the landscape, affront the senses. Yet no one’s directed toward understanding,
happiness or wholeness.
of modern chaos critiques Western decay. It may work best for those familiar
enough with arguments against the dehumanizing aspects of television and capitalism
to catch the piquancy of each flailing archetype: go-getter Hoover, soothsayer
Trout, the alienated spouse, the people-pleasing employee (Glenne Headly), the
repressed flunky (Nick Nolte), the ex-con zealot (Omar Epps) and the naive artist
offspring (Lukas Haas). Their swirling hysteria demonstrates world-gone-wrong
anxiety. It’s nothing Rudolph (and Vonnegut) just discovered; they’ve
been thinking and working too long to settle for slick pronouncements or glib
panaceas. And Rudolph’s mind clicks faster, more subtly, than most filmmakers’.
He starts at the point of oblivion American Beauty eventually arrives
at, then takes off. Breakfast of Champions plays as a series of apocalyptic
comedy routines, neurotic monologues bouncing off each other, sportive music
by Mark Isham and assorted witty graphemes (a naked woman stretched across Hoover’s
brain coils and sentences orbiting around his head). These ultimately reveal
Americans’ frustrated hope. That’s the awesome realization of each
comic-heartbreaking Rudolph film (1997’s Afterglow and 1993’s
Equinox the finest of a dazzling bunch).
offers the key Rudolph image. As Trout hitchhikes toward Midland City, he looks
in a diesel truck’s sideview mirror: His face stares out against a background
reflection of a vast rocky canyon with a fantasy of tropical palms and beach
supered underneath. Rudolph then zooms closer to Trout in contemplation, holding
in his head those contradictory images of harsh reality and balmy desire, feeling
is that terse, complicated and poignant. Different from the leisurely panoply
Altman might have made of the novel (his 1975 Nashville already absorbed
and surpassed Vonnegut’s themes), this is yet as imaginative and conscientious
an adaptation a zeitgeist novel could receive. Gus Van Sant’s film of Even
Cowgirls Get the Blues failed from poor craft and seriously uneven acting.
And not even Rudolph’s craft can redeem Bruce Willis, who simply isn’t
good enough in the central role. But thankfully he’s outacted by Nolte
and Finney; one finds comic depth in shame, the other in longing–a spiritual
link to the characters in Mumford. "Make me young," Trout pleads;
he’s not just old but fatigued from traversing the hell of our cultural
pollution. He crosses a River Styx of detritus Hoover, also seeking love and
solace, must follow. Their sojourn doesn’t resolve America’s problems,
but defines them. They suggest a necessary paraphrase of E.M. Forster: Only
disconnect the tv.
Baggage. Leonard Cohen’s jeremiad The Future contained the lines,
"I’m stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay/I’m
junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet" (the song
"Democracy"). Seven years later it’s hard to believe critics
are taking Sam Mendes’ paltry little symbol of that white plastic bag twirling
in the wind as an image of something meaningful or touching or ineffable. It’s
ridiculous. After all, Cohen’s garbage-bag image expressed chagrin (a distance
on pathos); the natural, lively, humanist hope he clings to is symbolized by
that "little wild bouquet." How shabby and risible is American
Beauty’s plastic bag. And of course, it’s white. Only Mumford
and Breakfast of Champions show a multiracial America; plus, those films
convey a semblance of contemporary pain, while Mendes’ stylization acts
as an emotional prophylactic.
director Mendes; he’s got a lot to answer for. With the exception of In
Dreams, this year’s DreamWorks movies have been garbage. ("It’s
here the family’s broken/And it’s here the lonely say/That the heart
has got to open in a fundamental way"–another great Cohen line that
quashes American Beauty.) It seems Spielberg admired Mendes’ recent
Broadway productions The Blue Room, in which Nicole Kidman bares her
ass, and the current revival of Cabaret Mendes "ingeniously"
decided to stage in a nightclub rather than just recreate a club within
a proscenium. That’s how clever Mendes is. He’d do a remake of The
Searchers and have us watch it in a desert, not allowing for the imaginative
projection of art. American Beauty is full of that same kind of insipidness.
Although American Beauty
This fantasy, almost in
Despite the contrivance
Without American Beauty’s
Nothing exposes that better
Breakfast of Champions
But because Rudolph is also
Breakfast of Champions
All of Breakfast of Champions
Apparently Spielberg "discovered"