Worst Best Picture: Is American Beauty Better or Worse Than Crash?

american beauty

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1999 winner American Beauty. Is it better than Crash?

When I first saw American Beauty I thought it was the greatest movie I’d ever seen. I was probably about 16. Those two things are connected.

From the ridiculous plastic-bag-in-the-wind scene to the rose petals that go so far past symbolism into being something else entirely, American Beauty is relentless with its style. If it connects with you, it probably does so very intensely. It’s a bit of a strange watch now, and I can’t say I’m not embarrassed by how much I liked it as a teenager. It’s the kind of movie that demands you ignore the edges to focus on the center. If you can do that, there’s a lot to love.

That was easier as a teenager. I looked past the super obvious mid-life crisis Kevin Spacey goes through and the first-year-creative-writing-student details of buying an expensive car, quitting your job in dramatic fashion, and smoking pot all the time. Typing it out feels ridiculous. Kevin Spacey is an incredible actor and he pulls off the sad-sack character well, but how is that not deeper? How did they get away with making such a surface-level movie that everyone called complex?

My best guess is because they tried to cover everything: sad loner with a secret warm heart, angry teenage daughter who just wants to connect, confident girl who secretly isn’t, sad housewife who seeks agency, etc, etc, etc. There’s a lot going on among the sad cast of American Beauty, and even for all the obviousness of the main traits of everyone involved, the gchat-status tagline of “look closer” actually works. I don’t buy the teenagers’ interactions with each other anymore, but the response of “don’t give up on me, dad” as a way to cut through Chris Cooper’s brutal discipline of his son really, really works. It’s not that he’s responding honestly, it’s that he’s figured out what his father wants to hear. Who ain’t been there?

American Beauty hasn’t aged well and it probably still has a ways to go before a historical consensus happens. It’s big on “art” in a way that can feel cheap at times — the roses coming out of Mena Suvari’s cheerleader uniform especially may as well have a “GET IT?” flashing over the screen — but I don’t hate it. I can’t really see why this was my favorite movie for so long, but that’s how a lot of these go. Hell, I think I kinda liked The Boondock Saints for a little bit, and oh my Godno.

The Best Part: In a last-ditch effort to save whatever remains of their love life, Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening very nearly have sex on a couch. She interrupts him with a shocked “don’t spill beer on the couch” and he responds with a tirade about how the couch doesn’t matter, everything else matters. It’s the entire ethos of American Beauty, and though there are many more hamfisted ways the message is expressed over the rest of the film, I really love this interaction. Honorable mention to Allison Janney, whose character is more haunting than I even remembered. It’s a terrifying display of more-from-less how she’s able to sell the misery of how life doesn’t always end up how you want.

The Worst Part: It’s gotta be the bag, right? The iconic scene in American Beauty is one character showing another video he shot of a bag floating in the wind. I don’t hate it as much as other people do — people really hate it — but I understand the feeling that “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world that I can’t take it” isn’t the home run line that it seemed like to a teenager.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Someone terrible might draw a connection here between two movies that wanted to sell a simple idea and were caught up in the idea that you might miss the point if they ever let off the gas. I get that, because the most reasonable criticism for both of them is that they’re just too blunt. American Beauty has some interesting takes on the everything-isn’t-as-sunny-as-it-looks idea, but Kevin Spacey smoking pot and ranting around about how suburbia has a dark underbelly is… yeah. The ties between these two aren’t great, but American Beauty has some smart elements. It’s likable for all of its frowning and grousing, and Crash is decidedly not.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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