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American Beauty

Released: 1999

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 1 hr 55 min

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Sam Mendes

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Thora Birch

A dark comedy film, directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball.

The movie has more good scenes that one can count.

Review by: SteveRhodes

Added: 8 years ago

"I'm 42 years old, and in less than a year I'll be dead," begins Kevin Spacey, in narration in AMERICAN BEAUTY, as the despondent Lester Burnham, a man with a family who loathes him, and vice versa. "Of course, I didn't know that yet." And then, reflecting on the miserable condition of his life he adds, "In a way, I'm dead already."

Even though you know he's going to die, how and why remain a complete mystery until the end -- there are many possibilities in this black comedy. As written with biting wit by Alan Ball and directed with a deft touch by Sam Mendes, the mystery is only a small part of the story. The film's many rewards include a darkly sardonic script, which is extremely funny, and an examination of middle age and teenage angst, which will likely strike several chords with everyone in the audience. We've had films about dysfunctional families, but this movie is about people with dysfunctional lives.

"My wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser," Lester admits with hopeless acceptance.

His sarcastic, bitch of a wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is an obsessive-compulsive real estate agent, who cleans houses for sale in her slip, lest she get a spot on her immaculate suit. She orders her husband around like a mongrel dog.

Her relationship with her daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is almost as strained as that with her husband. Coming when she isn't wanted to Jane's performance during the half-time show at the high school basketball game, Carolyn doesn't even know how to give a compliment. "Honey, I watched very clearly," she says in an off-putting remark. "You didn't screw up once."

Her only advice to her daughter is an attempt to mold her into an uncaring and unhappy perfectionist just like herself. "You can't count on anyone but yourself," Carolyn reveals as life's one commandment.

The angry and self-hating daughter can't stand her parents. When her dad refuses to accept "okay" as the answer to "how was school today?" she mocks him. "No, dad, it was spectacular," she tells him with emphasis on the sarcastic, overblown adjective.

Although Lester despises his family, the same cannot be said of his feelings toward Jane's best friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari from AMERICAN PIE), a teenage vamp who brags of her sexual conquests. Lester's real life may be miserable, especially his non-existent sexual relations with his wife, but his fantasy one is lively. His many erotic (but not explicit) dreams of Angela feature hundreds of American Beauty red rose petals, just the type his wife likes to grow. Suvari is wonderfully alluring as the embodiment of most middle-age men's secret desires.

Next door to the Burnhams, the Fitts move in and prove a fitting addition to the town, a hotbed of neuroses. The teenage boy, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), "who dresses like a Bible salesman," appears to be a stalker and a voyeur. He tries to hit on Jane, which Angela finds very creepy.

Ricky's father, an ex-Marine colonel, is so strict that he conducts regular drug tests on his son. As Colonel Fitts, Chris Cooper plays a similar role to the one he had in OCTOBER SKY, but this time most of his character's humanity has been stripped away. Ricky's mother (Allison Janney) is AWOL in her own life, looking like someone who was brainwashed during years of confinement in a concentration camp.

Carolyn worships the self-proclaimed, local real estate "king," Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). He's as full of advice and bluster as someone on a late-night infomercial. "Call me Crazy," he says meaning, of course, that he thinks he isn't, "but to be a success one must project an image of success at all times." Such times include the imminent departure of one's trophy wife.

The movie has more good scenes that one can count. The dining table sequences are the best since those in CITIZEN KANE. In one, Lester provides an aggressive replacement ("Don't interrupt me, honey!") for the typical husband's canonical "whatever" response.

My favorite scene in the entire movie happens in a fast food restaurant in which Spacey demonstrates amazing comedic control. He wants a job at Mr. Smiley's, and no pipsqueak of a manager will come in his way.

As Lester comes to realize that he has some considerable control over his fate, he transforms his attitude and approach in surprising and frequently delightful ways. It's easy to empathize with many of his responses to life. An engrossing satire for most of the movie, it reaches for the stars in the more dramatic last act. This final part gets under your skin so deeply that you realize that this is no mere comedy, but something much deeper and one of the best pictures of the year.

Kevin Spacey's work in the movie is the best film acting that he has ever done. (I was fortunate to see him star in the play "The Iceman Cometh" in both London and New York, and that, admittedly, was better still.) One hopes that, come Oscar time, he'll be taking home a best acting statuette to go beside his best supporting one for THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

AMERICAN BEAUTY runs 1:55. It is rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content and would be fine for teenagers only if they are both older and mature.