Suburbia

Depressing sight promoted in movie

Growing up off Route 17 in New Jersey, I always dreamed of living in Manhattan. Mine was a childhood of above-ground pools and station wagons and front lawns with Virgin Mary statues amid the rhododendrons. New York had edge and sophistication. It had museums with artwork I wanted to appreciate and sidewalks thrumming with purposeful people in stylish shoes. If I lived in New York, I would know things.

That is the promise of big cities: You'll read the smartest books, see the hippest movies, eat the newest cuisine. You'll understand the complexities of The Real World because it's pressed against your face like exhaust fumes every day.

Perhaps all that is true. I wouldn't know. I never did live in New York. Except for two years in San Francisco, I've been a suburbanite all my life. To Hollywood screenwriters, this means I live in a stultifying stupor brought on by boredom and the soulless pursuit of material goods. But I put up a good front, which is what movie suburbanites do. My house is clean, my lawn mowed, my flower pots in bloom. I seem to enjoy the company of my son and husband, but coldness, hypocrisy and perhaps even depravity lurk behind my perky public smile.

In Hollywood's suburbia, IQs rarely exceed the neighborhood speed limit. The moral code is shaped by two factors: convenience and self-interest. The only thing in the surburbanites' lives worse than their dead-end jobs are their dead-end marriages.

I say this having just seen "American Beauty," a compelling and at times brilliant film diminished by enough recycled suburban put-downs to fill a Hefty bag. Maybe I'm a little protective of the 'burbs these days, after Columbine and Conyers, et al., seemed to reinforce the notion that you didn't need to scratch the Abercrombie and Fitch veneer too deeply to find whole neighborhoods of twisted sickos.

In "American Beauty," a normal-seeming couple and their teen-age daughter live separate, isolated lives in a perfect house where the kitchen countertops shine like mirrors and the mother's pruning shears match her gardening clogs. The parents are self-involved, shallow and miserable. On his way to work, the husband curls up in the back seat of the family's Mercedes SUV his controlling, social-climbing wife and contemptuous daughter hog the front seats and says to himself, "I know I didn't always feel this sedated."

Next door lives a bigoted former Marine colonel with a blank-eyed wife who seems to have had a lobotomy. They locked their teen-age son, Ricky, in a mental institution for two years for smoking marijuana, though he clearly is the most grounded, sensitive person in the movie. You get the message: In the warped world of suburbia, people not caught up in the get-ahead, put-up-a-good-front rat race are seen as psychologically deficient.

In the end, Ricky and the girl-next-door decide to run away to a place where their sensitivity and groundedness won't be seen as aberrant. It doesn't matter that he'll have to support them by drug dealing. We're supposed to feel that they've triumphed because they're escaping the suburbs and going to where else? New York.

I like to imagine a sequel that shows the two teen-agers in Manhattan the moment they realize that beauty and misery travel through picket fences and iron grates with equal efficiency. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Send comments to her at her e-mail at joanryan@sfgate.com.)

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