Towelhead (2008) -vs- American Beauty (1999)

Towelhead -vs- American Beauty

Bryce Zabel, Editor-in-ChiefThe Smackdown

It’s been ten years next week that audiences got their first look at “American Beauty,” the film with its dark vision of Americana that went on to win our highest honor in film.  So today, we give you Ball-vs-Ball.

The suburbs of Alan Ball’s imagination are places that so stifle people from living reasonable lives that they go berserk looking for meaning.  That can include quitting your job, blackmailing your boss and going to work at a fast food restaurant or it can mean underage kids pulled into sexually confusing or predatory relations.  So far as I can tell, it never means anything normal.  “American Beauty” got the Oscar almost a decade ago after taking us on a joy ride into the curdled family dynamics of the Burnam household and now “Towelhead” takes us into the outer regions of Houston where coming to America looks like something that immigrants should hardly wish for.

The Challenger

“Towelhead” begins with a 13-year-old girl Jasira (Summer Bishil) calmly letting someone completely inappropriate shave her pubic hair.  I’m not joking: do not take your kids to see this picture.  In any case, Jasira gets shipped off to live with her father Rifat (Peter Macdissi) who works for NASA in a bland tract house in a cul-de-sac of weirdness.  There’s the racist and obnoxious 11-year-old next door who turns her onto sex magazines and the kid’s father Mr. Vuoso (Aaron Eckhart) who actually manages to do worse things to her than force her to endure the act that started the picture.  Along the way and in between this sadness, the film, based on a 2005 novel by Alicia Erian, wants to tell a story of “sexual awakening” of this young girl.  Written and directed by Alan Ball, it’s his directorial debut.

The Defending Champion

If you haven’t seen “American Beauty,” you probably at least know that it won the Oscar for “Best Picture” and that Kevin Spacey took home the “Best Actor” award.  Written also by Alan Ball, it takes us inside the (dead) head of Lester Burnam (Spacey) who is living a life of nearly-silent desperation in the suburbs when something just snaps.  It’s not played for comedy, but it is funny, but also tragic.  The thing that snaps, apparently, is Spacey seeing the nubile blonde cheerleader played by Mena Suvari at his daughter’s high school and deciding that he needs to bed her.  But first he sheds all the vestiges of his life, like his job, his quiet civility, his straightness, several pounds of body fat and even his attempts to appear normal.  He deserves that Oscar and the plots and sub-plots that surrounded his performance only gave it the world to emerge from.

The Scorecard

Imagine having your first major film win the Oscar as “Best Picture.”  What’s your follow-up?  “Towelhead” is what Alan Ball felt was his best foot forward after eight years.  It’s absolutely clear that he was trying to re-capture the comic pitch of his earlier triumph in tone and performance.The thing that sucked you into “American Beauty” was its sense of dreaded normalcy.  It felt familiar (at least to me) yet it held such dark secrets.  In “Towelhead,” it sets us into a world that feels, if not impossible, at least improbable.  I saw “Towelhead” almost a year ago when a friend brought a cut over while it was in its second post-production after winning all kinds of response at the earlier Toronto Film Festival.  When the lights came back on at the end, my big question was “What was this film really about?”  The film had originally been called “Nothing is Private.”  The studio wanted to re-name it.  Ball wanted “Towelhead” and many other names were discussed.

If Kevin Spacey’s character’s wrong intentions are at least understandable, Aaron Eckhardt’s are just plain wrong.  There is a pervasive tone of abuse in “Towelhead” that never goes away and is at distinct odds from the attempt to show us lighter moments in life as we know it.  It can definitely hit you in a way that creates a strong reaction.  Reviewer Cole Smithey called the film “the most disgusting, ethically reprehensible, and irresponsible film to come out of the 21st century’s first decade.”  I know that Republicans will hate it, but I don’t think a lot of Democrats will enjoy it either.

The Decision

I’ve met Alan Ball (while I was chairman of the TV Academy) and like his work a lot.  Watched every episode of “Six Feet Under” and have started in on “True Blood.”  You want to like his work because he’s attempting to do challenging things and mostly succeeding.  With “Towelhead,” however, he’s picked too strange a story, one that I think probably failed at the material stage: he should have passed on the book, but he bought it instead.

“Towelhead” probably won’t work for you.  If you want to remember how original Ball can be, go for a new viewing of “American Beauty” and prepare to be amazed… again.

Bryce Zabel and Alan Ball
Alan Ball (left) and Bryce Zabel at the Directors Guild of America.
About Bryce Zabel 199 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, writer/producer and fast-food cook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of Movie Smackdown. While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, creator of five primetime network TV series, and author of a new non-fiction book about UFOs.

1 Comment on Towelhead (2008) -vs- American Beauty (1999)


  1. Bryce:
    I knew “Towelhead” only by reputation. Forewarned is forearmed.

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