American Beauty
Rating -

Drama (US); 1999; Rated R; 120 Minutes

Kevin Spacey: Lester Burnham
Annette Bening: Carolyn Burnham
Thora Birch: Jane Burnham
Wes Bentley: Ricky Fitts
Mena Suvari: Angela Hayes

Produced by Alan Ball, Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks and Stan Wlodkowski; Directed by Sam Mendes; Screenwritten by Alan Ball

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Like a fast-flowing river emptying into the mouth of a bottomless lagoon, "American Beauty" sails with sheer grace and distinction, only for it to abruptly dispatch into a maw unavoidable for the characters. Its presumptuous focus on the utmost dysfunction of the American dream leaves us questioning our own family values, and looking closer for the "hidden beauty" of all things existing. In many ways, this is a film comparable to that Ang Lee masterpiece "The Ice Storm"--both have foregrounds that, at first glance, resemble the texture of a Thomas Kinkade painting, when in fact their interiors are dark and menacing, usually occupied by everlasting tribulations.

The only gap that separates "The Ice Storm" from "American Beauty," perhaps, is the approach of the material. Ang Lee's brilliant look into the cruel infliction of two disturbing households is one that offers no relief for an audience seeking a happy ending. "American Beauty," while dark and intrusive, manages to retain moments of color and amusement, as we explore these characters' lives and sometimes laugh at their lunacy. Sam Menendes' production, filled with exuberant photography, generates an audience's interest with thought-provoking perceptions on the true nature (or "beauty") of common American family life. As a director, he also draws in some of the finest performances seen in a movie this year--the best of which is Kevin Spacey, already famous for his role in the critically raved "L.A. Confidential," who may even be on his way to an Oscar nod.

Spacey plays Lester, a 42-year-old with a mid-life crisis, and an incessant urge to fantasize about his daughter's teenage friend. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a frustrated but tolerant woman, who resorts to sleeping with a coworker when her marriage appears to be growing stale. At the center of these two individuals is Jane (Thora Birch), a lovely teenage girl who is saving up money for breast augmentation, although she clearly has no need to. We wonder why two opposites such as Carolyn and Lester would even consider staying together, especially when both have grown so far apart. Yet, through Jane's eyes, we see why they continue their marriage--either for the benefit of their daughter, or because the prospect of being alone scares the hell out of them.

Jane has other issues to deal with. Aside from worrying about her friend's physical fascination with her father, she develops a relationship with her neighbor, a guy named Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), whose mother is virtually dead from the world, and whose father is a neo-Nazi paranoid that his son might be on drugs, and demands urine samples twice a year for drug testing.

While fights and rejections continue between Lester and Carolyn, the movie turns its focus to Jane and Ricky, who are, in a way, like two lovers in a Shakespeare play, caught between families that would be much better off if they would give into the notion that there is no marriage to save. There is a sense of irony that erupts from the erosion these two houses, though: every person is decisively withdrawn from caring about others, and the prospect of putting one's needs before his or her own--except for two gay guys, who occupy the movie like guardian angels. The members of both families taunt and slur on endless occasions, but the gay couple relishes.

This setup is not without some problems. In the duration of 120 minutes, "American Beauty" seems to have difficult trouble stabilizing its structure. There is an unsteady pace here, made all the more uneven by the lack of focus on certain other characters (like Ricky's mother), and overpaid attention on the main ones. Kevin Spacey, yes, exemplifies his role in a marvelous, deeply thought-provoking manner, but Annette Bening is overplaying Carolyn, seldom earning sympathy from us as the viewers. We understand her dilemma, but she's over-dramatizing it.

Recommending this movie is not a problem. Claiming that it is the Oscar front-runner is not a problem. Calling it the best of the year, however, is argumentative. This is because most critics have stepped ahead of themselves by calling it "the year's best"--not "one" of the best, but "the" best, which sets our hopes so high, they are dashed by those annoying details listed above. Besides, those colleagues of mine may be creating the impression to readers that no other film of the year has been quite this powerful, when, in fact, Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" still remains the strongest achievement this year's cinema has seen (at least in my view). "American Beauty" is an impressive achievement, yes, but not always a deep and effective one. It boasts topnotch performances, smart dialogue and repartee, brilliant photography, and a well-crafted story--but all the same, it lacks a stable foundation.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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