American Beauty Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

Our marriage is just for show... a commercial for how normal we are... when we're anything but.

American Beauty poster

After winning the People's Choice Award at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival, director Sam Mendes' debut feature "American Beauty" is expected to be a strong contender for an Academy Award nomination. This often cynical, black-humored, and acerbic film is the latest film delving into the morass of suburban decay, revealing the dark underside to the American ideal of a white picket fence, a well-trimmed lawn, two cars, and a house in the suburbs. And while it boasts a script rife with delicious one-liners and a number of memorable performances, the disheartening narrative and a thematically-ambiguous ending prevent "American Beauty" from being the year's absolute best.

At the age of 42, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey of "Hurlyburly") is a complete burnout, wandering through his pathetically uneventful life in a catatonic daze. As a media buyer at a major advertising firm, he passes his days in his cubicle, calling clients who never call him back, while holding unreserved contempt against his bosses. His painfully strained domestic life doesn't fare much better, as both his materialistic wife Carolyn (Annette Bening of "The Siege") and his dour daughter Jane (Thora Birch of "Alaska") view him as a 'loser', and barely acknowledge his existence. Living day-to-day in such a mundane and repetitive existence, Lester has no passion, no plans, and no joy.

We're having everyone write out a job description... that way management can assess who's valuable and...
...who's expendable!

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening

However, Lester's outlook on life is changed by two events. At his job, an efficiency expert is evaluating 'who is valuable and who is expendable', and Lester is asked to document his worth in order to keep his job. But instead of bowing down in the face of authority as he has always done, Lester uses the company downsizing as an opportunity to avenge the years of corporate torment he has had to endure, and absolves himself of all responsibility. At the same time, Lester is introduced to his daughter's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari of "American Pie"), a cheerleader who reawakens his long-dormant sexuality and fuels a series of obsessive Lolita-type fantasies. Both of these events send Lester down a path to recapture his youth, which have both unexpected and self-destructive consequences.

I didn't mean to scare you... I'm not obsessing... I'm just curious.

Meanwhile, Lester's wife and daughter are each experiencing awakenings of their own. Frustrated by and trapped in a loveless marriage, Carolyn finds sanctuary in a fellow real estate agent (Peter Gallagher of "The Underneath"), a shrewd and successful businessman who shares her mantra of self-gratification. Jane, who has been saving up for breast augmentation surgery, begins a relationship with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), an odd boy-next-door with a penchant for spying on her with his video camera. Unfortunately, as husband, wife, and daughter each follow their own trajectory, they set in motion a series of events that ultimately tears their household apart.

Today I quit my job and then blackmailed my boss for almost sixty thousand dollars! Pass the asparagus.

Mena Suvari and Thora Birch

"American Beauty" covers much of the same territory seen in films such as "Happiness", "The Ice Storm", "The House of Yes", and "Blue Velvet", in which the façade of a peaceful and prosperous home is peeled away to reveal the damaged lives existing within its walls. And though this latest potshot at dysfunctional families does an excellent job with its well-crafted characters, excellent performances, and witty banter, Alan Ball's script never uses these elements to fashion an insightful or emotionally satisfying film. There aren't too many surprises found within this film (even the ending is given away in the first few minutes), and though the audience is treated to a number of memorable scenes along the way, the resolution unfurls with a resounding thud, lacking the expected poignancy.

Wes Bentley

Part of the reason for this is that the script wades through a number of subplots that don't combine well to produce a strong thematic undercurrent to the action. By the film's end, the film has thrown out a few interesting ideas, but the underlying purpose to all the histrionics remains ambiguous. Another obstacle for the film is its characters-- though they are well-drawn and backed by an excellent ensemble of actors, their flaws and trademark bad behavior leave them few redeeming qualities, making it difficult to root for them.

I'm so proud of you! I looked really carefully and you didn't screw up once!

Narrative concerns aside, "American Beauty" does have some great acting on its side. Spacey is wonderfully exuberant as the newly invigorated protagonist. Bening, while saddled with an implausibly abrasive character, brings the requisite amount of manic energy and over-the-top antics to her performance, making it easy to overlook the one-dimensionality of her character. In addition to the great supporting performances by Suvari and Bentley, Chris Cooper ("Lone Star") is on hand as Ricky's rigid ex-Marine father. However, the prize for Oscar-worthy performance belongs to Birch, who, in addition to possessing a remarkable screen presence, adeptly conveys the confusion and pent-up contempt of her character, making Jane the most accessible character of the film.

A strong cast and wickedly witty script are two good reasons to see "American Beauty", but some stumbles in the story make it fall short of being counted as the year's absolute best. Lacking the insight of last year's "Happiness", "American Beauty" comes across as a well-intentioned effort that runs out of steam at the halfway point... after having forgotten what it was trying to achieve.

Images courtesy of Dreamworks SKG. All rights reserved.


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