Talkin’ ’bout that generation, September brings two richly metaphoric songs of male Boomer pathos: the midlife-crisis dark comedy American Beauty, and the sanctimonious baseball-veteran weepie, For Love of the Game.
The story is the same— dude, do your thing and regain your youth— but the attitudes are a bit different. Looking for some instant edge, American Beauty opens with a home video of an unhappy teenager whining that she needs a father “who’s a role model, not some horny geek boy” drooling over her friends. The girl considers her dad “too embarrassing to live” and, in fact, he doesn’t, narrating American Beauty from beyond the grave. Altogether more reverential, For Love of the Game‘s precredit home movies show a cute Little Leaguer and his pop. No geek boys here, and the supernaturalism is far more natural— the images are rendered in slo-mo and accompanied by the sort of Americana religioso music sure to go into heavy rotation the day Ronald Reagan dies.
Bland and nasty, American Beauty has the slightly stale feel of a family sitcom conceived under the spell of Married . . . With Children. The location is generic suburbia; the houses are showroom stage sets. Lester, Carolyn and Jane Burnham are a hapless bunch of middle Americans— a loser (Kevin Spacey), a bitch (Annette Bening) and their teenage brat (Thora Birch), all bound together in collective loathing and individual failure. Lester is an adman whose job hangs by a thread. Carolyn’s a realtor who can’t sell a house. Jane, the most sympathetic of the trio, is merely suffused in the sullen self-hatred characteristic of her class.
Directed by theatrical wunderkind Sam Mendes (The Blue Room, Cabaret) from Alan Ball’s script, American Beauty has aspects of movie-industry allegory. It’s predicated on middle-aged Lester’s life-changing lust for his daughter’s lush-lipped, ultrablond best friend (Mena Suvari). Gotta get a slice of that American Pie. Although the fear-and-loathing-drenched conversations between the two girls provide the film’s most resonant moments, this is hardly Catherine Breillat territory. The most perverse thing about Lester’s l’amour fou is its liberating self-actualization.
Spacey underplays his role to appealingly hangdog affect. The same cannot be said for Bening but then, once his character lets go, Spacey has the better material. This is a man’s world, or at least a boy’s. Jerking off in the marital bed (rather than the shower), smoking pot with the neighbor kid Ricky (wooden Wes Bentley), revisiting the classic rock of his adolescence as he bench-presses in the garage, chucking his office job to get one flipping burgers, Lester is triumphantly regressive. His wife, meanwhile, can only reenact a tired, grown-up scenario of tawdry motel-room adultery and fantasy vengeance. Her form of self-actualization is learning to shoot a .44 Magnum.
Spacey’s scenes have a slyly provocative slacker quality that nothing else in the movie achieves. The rest of the cast, including Peter Gallagher’s holographic real-estate agent and the grim American Gothic family next door, serve largely as props. There’s too much dead air around the dialogue and the comic pacing is nonexistent. For his first feature, Mendes seems to be striving for a tricksy, overstylized naturalism without much concern for visual coherence. Bouncing from one quick fix to another, the director shifts to video-surveillance mode or cuts to an overhead angle, strews one scene with symbolic rose petals and lights another in ostentatious chiaroscuro, then, when all else fails, sneaks outside to shoot the action softcore-porn style through a rain-streaked bedroom window.
Mendes’s harsh and hyperbolic, if not particularly funny, satire of suburban angst makes The Ice Storm seem a nuanced masterpiece of engaged cine-humanism and wiseguy Todd Solondz look like a Swiftian genius. Bleak as it is, American Beauty has a certain car-wreck fascination but, with all the rubbernecking, there’s no narrative flow. As studied as its title would suggest, this is one cold movie. All elements do laboriously come together as the action finally congeals into drama and, amid moments of sexual truth, goes glacially over the top.
Although its mood is as wintry as Ingmar Bergman, American Beauty has a backbeat of New Age mysticism. In keeping with the generational schema, this wisdom is imparted to Lester by young Ricky (an avant-garde video artist as well as a pothead): “It’s hard to stay mad when there is so much beauty in the world.” Easy for him to say. It’s not even a lesson Mendes applies to his own film.
In a last bit of ’60s feedback, American Beauty drafts a late Beatles dirge for its title crawl. Still, as misplaced nostalgia, few things are worse than the spectacle of Kevin Costner in a Detroit Tigers uniform, bucking the odds and pitching toward a comeback, alone on the mound with Bob Seger singing “Against the Wind.”
In For Love of the Game, Costner plays 40-year-old Billy Chaplin, who, as we’re more than once told, is a future hall-of-famer, as well as the Tigers’ “heart and soul.” Costner himself is the doggedly humorless heart and soul (and brains?) of this monumentally maudlin picture, directed by Sam Raimi from a script by Dana Stevens, the woman responsible for transforming Wings of Desire into City of Angels. Cocooned in self-congratulation, Costner’s is the resident male ego who gets pumped up hearing his lady Jane (Kelly Preston, in a part, clothes, and coiffure seemingly designed for Meg Ryan) say things like “You are such a guy— you’re the ultimate guy.”
Nothing if not a structural film, For Love of the Game unfolds as sore-armed Billy is pitching a perfect game against the Yankees in New York while pondering the unhappy trajectory of his five-year-long affair with headstrong Jane. Flashbacks alternate with strikeouts. (Although the movie is a daunting two hours and 24 minutes long, the key scene is less than 30 seconds. Preston, smoothing Costner’s hair as she cradles his head in her lap: “Do you believe in God?” Costner, after a slight pause: “Yes.” And cut! God has got to be relieved.)
Costner must feel like he invented baseball in Bull Durham and brought down its commandments in Field of Dreams. I don’t mind For Love of the Game‘s ragging on obnoxious Yankee fans but it is pretty churlish that, in all the hubbub over Billy’s fictional accomplishment— scarcely more amazing, if you think about it, than the idea of Kevin Spacey’s fortysomething zhlub nailing Mena Suvari on his living-room couch— none of the real-life color commentators have the good grace to evoke the Yankees’ own recent perfectos, David Cone or David Wells. Instead we get Vince Scully going all incantatory: “He’s pitching against time, he’s pitching against the future, he’s pitching against his own mortality.” Yeah, yeah, he’s pitching you a screenplay.
Sam Raimi made his bones with Evil Dead just about the time Billy supposedly reached stardom with the Tigers, but this sentimental epic is a new sort of horror film. For Love of the Game is designed to put a baseball-sized lump in your throat. Well before that, however, you may feel like putting a lump on Kevin Costner’s head.
American Beauty A DreamWorks release. Directed by Sam Mendes. Opens Sept. 17. FOR LOVE OF THE GAME A Universal release. Directed by Sam Raimi. Opens Sept. 17.