Both the movie and the book expose the dark side of suburban life, homosexuality-turned-homophobia, the bleak existence of corporate executives, desperation in the real estate industry, drug-enhanced escapism, and what Cheever would call "zealous and vengeful" adolescents. Both attack marriage on exactly the same terms: as the by-product of corporate and consumer culture. In a sentence reminiscent of the film's dialogue, Cheever's narrator says, "The Ridleys brought to the hallowed institution of holy matrimony a definitely commercial quality as if to marry and conceive, rear and educate children was like the manufacture and merchandising of some useful product produced in competition with other manufacturers." That was 30 years ago.
I could catalogue similarities: The husband reduced to interactions with a drug dealer, the son tormenting his homophobic father, fleeting beauty glimpsed in a drifting plastic bag or leaves in the headlights -- but my goal isn't to diminish the film. I agree with the New Yorker review, which called American Beauty "the strongest American film of the year." But I disagree when the reviewer insists on the distinctively '90s angle of the work, referring to the "dissatisfactions of the business-mad, image-mad nineties." In the same review he writes, "The nineties bite, and they leave marks." One significant refrain from the film, "In order to be successful, one must project an image of success," the reviewer calls "an official nineties slogan."
None of this is new. From their inception in the 1940s, the suburbs were targeted as the epitome of repression, unhappiness, and image-conscious culture. Bullet Park illuminated this, and spent weeks on the best-seller lists of 1969. In the same year, a New York Times reviewer wrote that Bullet Park "has the tone of a summing-up and the tension and luminosity of a vision." Thirty years later, not only is Cheever's vision relevant, but apparently when presented in film, it still strikes even sophisticated New Yorker reviewers as original.