American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty balances between dark comedy and moving drama not only well but tremendously on target. It’s a slice of life showing the dark side of a faceless and cold suburban life. The deterioration of a family and the escape of one man as he realizes the trivial nature of the things that get in the way of seizing life. American Beauty is not a rose for everyone but it’s one standing out from the pack screaming to be picked.
Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, the husband and father of our story’s family. Life has been sucked dry from his system and he’s lost interest in everything he holds around him.
Annette Benning plays Carolyn Burnham, mother and wife. She breaths the mantra, “To be successful one must present an image of success at all times.” like she was beating a Bible until it bled. She’s a woman whom image is everything, and looking good is all that matters. She has become so detached from her family and life that she has actually lost her humanity in the hunt for success while waving her cheerful smile as a mask that eludes to the superficial inside. Carolyn is a woman who refuses to let herself fail or have weakness, and those around her to make her seem weak.
Thora Birch, of Alaska and Now and Then fame, is the estranged daughter to Spacey and Bening. She feels alienated from her parents, and despises them from easily seeing through each. Thora discovers new ways to feel contempt for her parents with each day. She is a repressed child who is looking for an outlet of understanding and help. Enter pot dealing creepy new neighbor Wes Bentley. He sees true beauty where no one could, and is the escape and shoulder that young Thora has needed all her life from her monstrously neglectful parents. Wes videotapes everything in an effort to keep the memories of beauty alive to venture back and relive the moments. He shares his prized image with Thora one day, that of a plastic bag inflating and deflating with the autumn breeze as it swirls around almost balletic dancing. The image is mesmerizingly hypnotic and you understand that Wes is a character who looks beneath the surface and most likely the most noble in the entire movie.
Mena Suvari switches from sweet choirgirl from American Pie to ditzy teen vamp. She is a person who feels such insecurity for herself that the only happiness she can arrive is from being wanted by other people. She must have acceptance in some form or another, and “ordinary” to her is a worse word than “ugly.” She acts like a teen nympho but in the end reveals that she is really an innocent young girl desperately wanting to be liked and wanted.
There are other characters that round out the cast; a brief appearance with Scott Bakula who makes a quantum leap into a gay neighbor, Allison Janney as the mother to Wes and the silent hollow image of a wife she has become to socially hide her husband’s secret, Chris Cooper again as an abusive father who’s maliciously homophobic but hiding a devastating secret deep within, even Peter Gallagher with the biggest eyebrows you’ve ever seen as a suave real estate mogul that knows how to cater to Carolyn’s thematic problems.
The basis of the story hinges on Lester’s reawakening. He is a man going through the motions of life like a walking dead man. A man who tells people that even he wouldn’t remember himself. Lester is an unhappy cog until viewing his daughter’s friend Angela (Suvari) at a high school basketball game. At first glimpse she becomes the intense object of his desire and obsession, and his focus on life centers around this young gal. But with that moment Lester’s life is broken, and his eyes are opened for the first time in a very long time. He sees the trite redundancy with the day-to-day grind of ordinary suburbanite life. Lester breaks free and does what he wishes, he is a free man. Free of his job, his nagging ice queen of a wife, free of all worries and fears.
As far as Oscar races go, all others don’t even bother filling out an application for an invitation – Spacey has Best Actor locked. He might as well start clearing a space on his shelf next to the one he got for The Usual Suspects. Spacey is so wonderfully wry and self degrading that he transforms into an actually likeable almost laid back hero for the audience. They know his tragic fate and feel good when he gets the most he can with each day, and not letting himself be pushed around anymore. Benning is also delightful and wickedly hilarious in her materially overzealous soccer mom. Birch is excellent showing the pains of alienation and showing that despite what her character thinks she is really the last person on earth who needs a boob job. Director Sam Mendes’ first feature after touring the theater circuit shows his devotion to characters and actors with subdued symbolism layered between every frame of film. I say Oscars should go all around and this movie deserves a good swapping of gold statuettes.
I could go on talking about the depth and characters for hours but I’ll just stop here and say that you won’t see a more engaging, compelling, and brutally honest and sadly funny film in the entire year of 1999. One of the best films not only of this year but of the entire decade.
Nate’s Grade: A
This movie also revisited and analyzed in the article, “1999: The Greatest Year in Film? A Review Re-View.”
Posted on September 17, 1999, in 1999 Movies, Review Re-View and tagged alan ball, allison janey, annette bening, best picture, chris cooper, coming of age, dark comedy, drama, kevin spacey, mena suvari, oscars, sam mendes, satire, thora birch, wes bentley. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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