Masters of Suburbia: How ‘American Beauty’ Weathers ‘The Ice Storm’

“I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary.” 

In spite of the white picket fences, manicured lawns, and two car garages, plaguing the heart of the American Dream is the underlying pestilence of an ordinary existence.   In accordance with the old adage of “art imitating life,” contemporary American life has been and continues to be a favorite subject of satire, criticism, and reflection in film.  The “picture-perfect” fallacy of the suburban lifestyle consistently fairs well (or not) in big-screen representations as a particularly potent point of fascination for both filmmakers and audiences alike.  Ranging from coming-of-age stories like The Graduate (1967) and American Graffiti (1973) to unflinching satires like Fight Club (1999) and American Psycho (2000), the discussion of modern American values plants seeds of dissent between social norms and expectations  and personal desires and outlooks.  Two films that draw uncanny parallels to one another as musings on the disconnect between the image of American suburbia and its flawed human representatives are Sam Mendes‘ acclaimed American Beauty (1999) and Ang Lee’s lesser-known, though still appreciated, The Ice Storm (1997).  Though not nearly on the same scale of resonance and cultural or cinematic impact, the obvious similarities between the two films make them rivaling meditations on American Suburbia ripe for comparison.

On the basic level of story-telling quality, American Beauty is more effective due to its narrow focus, allowing for a cohesive and consistent tone, which The Ice Storm lacks because of its more loose, scattered attention on multiple characters and families.   Alan Ball’s Oscar-winning screenplay provides a clear, biting sense of irony and cynicism, making Sam Mendes’ directorial debut a smirkingly satisfying dark comedy of sorts.   The tight, voyeuristic narrative structured intimately around the Burnham family affords them no opportunity to hide any bit of themselves, generating heightened intrigue in their compelling experiences.   As living embodiments of the punchline of the joke, the characters in Mendes’ disillusioned suburbia are notably worthy of empathetic investment because they possess distinct belief systems exposing their greatest fears and hopes, which are well-established and engrained into their identities.  Ricky Fitts’ heartbreaking director’s commentary during the viewing of his film of the dancing plastic bag is the philosophy which glues the entire narrative together.  The same beauty which overwhelms Ricky is equivalent to the sheer brilliance and awe Mendes’ greatest cinematic achievement yet continues to evoke more than a decade after its conception.

On the other hand, The Ice Storm is missing a discernible tone to attribute a better sense of meaning to its rather basic plot.  While the novel of the same name by Rick Moody has been called funny, bitter, and moving, the film largely fails to capture the literary qualities which made the 1994 book a successfully evocative hymn about the scandal-riddled turbulence in American life in the 1970s.  The film adaptation is neither entirely glum and dismal nor sarcastic and critical, never fully achieving the chill sterility its title suggests.  Why is the marriage between Ben and Elena Hood so unhappy?  What are young Wendy’s motives for seducing Mickey and his younger brother?  Why does Janey Carver flit from one extra-marital affair to another?  There’s never any elaboration into what’s “eating” the characters and, quite frankly, we don’t give a damn.  Kevin Kline’s Ben is the only one who emits something vaguely resembling warmth as a counter to the general, unfounded indifference of the others, but there’s no palpable tension between the discrepancies to latch onto as the film’s overall worldview.  Other than the obvious, simplistic judgements inherent in the context of various plot developments–the adultery is bad, the tragedy at the end is sad– there just isn’t anything supplementary injected to manipulate an identifiable philosophy.

Though the two films explore many of the same themes and suburban secrets–sexual experimentation, adults who are absent from their children’s lives and are failing to be role models for their children, and repression of individuality in favor of conformity–under the meticulous direction of Mendes and his editing choices, American Beauty stands out due in large part to its more calculated narrative structure and establishment of a definitively satirical, though not overly cynical, tone.

The varying degrees of functionality of the two film’s musical scores serve as another reflection of the pervading moods of the narratives.  Thomas Newman’s Academy-nominated score for American Beauty largely relies upon piano and other percussion instruments to imbue a level of sterility, artificiality, and minimalism, which perfectly encapsulates the tone without detracting from it.  It’s almost lulling and induces a state of sedation paralleling Lester’s state of mind, which progresses from an agitated, drone-like apathy to a more relaxed, mellow and peaceful indifference.  Unfortunately, Mychael Danna’s lively percussion-based, almost ethnic-sounding score for The Ice Storm is pretty jarring to the unfeeling, gray environment, and not in an intentionally ironic way, either.  It just feels out of place and too upbeat to accompany a mostly dreary landscape.

Then there’s the differing use of narration in the two films, with one, again, being more effective than the other.  Lester Burnham is an omniscient narrator, much like Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950), who wastes no time in offering the spoiler of his own death.  With the completely relaxed manner Kevin Spacey so expertly epitomizes, an immediate sense of intimacy and empathy develops for his character and builds the foundation of a sustained interest in his transformation.  Lester documents the distinct stages in his progression with poignant voiceovers woven appropriately  throughout the tight narrative.  It all begins with his reflective, revelatory introduction, “In less than a year, I will be dead.  Of course, I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I’m dead already.”   He’s then spurred to the point of realization and action upon seeing Angela Hayes for the first time, attesting, “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years and I’m just now waking up,” and comes full circle to his redemption with the hopeful, beautiful closing lines of “I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”  The cathartic process of Lester reclaiming power over his life, coming to realize he’s “just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose,” and asserting his renewed vitality and masculinity is an extremely personal, rewarding experience.

Although it’s very prophetic for Tobey Maguire’s character in The Ice Storm to be reading a Marvel comic book, his narration about family inspired by “The Fantastic 4” isn’t in tune with the story and very loosely bookends the film.  Paul Hood is placed at a distance from the main developments in the plot, possibly to protect or preserve his naivete as an outsider, but he’s not at all reliable as a narrator.  His dreamy demeanor and physical absence from most of the events which lend themselves to social indictment essentially disconnect him from the main premise and strip him of the ability to present an accurate account or opinion.  In fact, the only time we see him engaging in real activities are when he’s away at school in New York or when he goes back into the city for a “date.”  He never takes part in anything potentially compromising, like the rest of the characters do, while in his home in the affluent suburbs of New Canaan, Connecticut.  It’s a strategic narrative choice intended to uphold the delusion of the “perfect” American life, but his insights about the implications and values of family are too unrelatable and far removed from the events we’ve witnessed.  The setup about how “your family is the void you emerge from, and the place you return to when you die” is promising and intriguing, but the rest of the story never quite materializes according to expectations.

It may be like pitting two different weight classes against one another to even compare the two films, since Sam Mendes has made it something of a career expertise to present often unsettlingly honest, cynical portrayals of American life, but all’s fair in the love of film.  In fact, it’s still puzzling how no one has yet seized upon the opportunity to get him to direct an adaptation of one of the most classic American literary satires, The Great Gatsby.  He’d masterfully capture the essence of Fitzgerald’s ironically romanticized critique on the American Dream like only he can and no one has up to this point, but alas, a production executive I am not.  Ang Lee’s adaptation of The Ice Storm is definitely an interesting watch, but can’t quite match the rich, character-driven satire that is American Beauty.  In the words of our personal hero, Lester, it’s just simply “Spec-ta-cular!”