Making a case for suburbia

November 09, 1999|By Mary C. Curtis

HAVE YOU hacked your way through the thicket of hype surrounding "American Beauty" I did. I actually saw it, and I was under-whelmed. Yes, it is a good film, with some great performances. But to read the reviews, you would think it's a revelation, this searing dissection of the sterility of suburban life.

The territory has been mined before, in so many films from "Stepford Wives" to "Ordinary People." "American Beauty" takes it up several notches. Now we have "Extraordinarily Weird People," from the caricature portrait of frigid Mom to the beyond-frustrated, spiritually dead Dad. I like Kevin Spacey, but do I need to see him masturbate not once, but twice I get it!

And we have the voyeuristic, drug-dealing teen next door with repressed martinet Dad and barely sentient Mom.

The two teen-age girls are no better. Take your pick between the outwardly slutty blond cheerleader and the dark-lipsticked sullen misfit.

What suburban hell did British director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball stumble into

I'm here to defend suburbia.

Yes, if you live past city's edge you sometimes wish you could walk to more stores and have the bus line a little closer, but I hardly think suburbia is a moral sewer and the repository of all things bland and evil.

You wistfully pine for sidewalks, not a way out of empty relationships and brain-dead diversions.

I looked at the folks coming out of the theater in the suburban shopping center where I saw the film, and no one looked particularly soulless.

But shorthand signals have replaced attempts at originality and accuracy, at least in the movies.

On film, a city may be a mite messy around the edges, but it's intellectually and culturally alive. The people are smarter and invariably have better taste in clothes and makeup.

In movieland suburbs, the emphasis is on material wealth and outward appearances. The yard must be perfect, but the people are warped. Mom and Dad don't talk, and rarely have sex -- with each other anyway. All this, of course, leaves no time for the kids, who steal and drink and have lots of sex with other aimless kids.

And if you're not that way when you move to the suburbs, you will inevitably get that way within a few years.

A lot of people I know move to the suburbs simply because they want a yard big enough for a swing set or a barbecue and a couple of lawn chairs. They get more for their money if they move out a ways.Wherever there are people, some of them are dysfunctional.

And films bashing the suburbs will always have an audience, especially if they are as visually stylish as "American Beauty."

But filmmakers, please don't condemn us until you've walked a mile in our matching garden clogs or driven our loud power mowers and SUVs. We love our 2.3 children as much as any city dweller. Come into our gated communities. Give in to the dark side.

Mary Curtis is features editor and a columnist at the Charlotte Observer.

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