American Beauty
Mena Suvari in American Beauty USA, 1999.  Rated R.  121 minutes.

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula
Writer: Alan Ball
Music: Thomas Newman, additional songs by Pete Townshend
Cinematographer: Conrad L. Hall
Producers: Bruce Cohen & Dan Jinks
Director: Sam Mendes

Grade: A- Review by Jeff Vorndam

A merican Beauty is a toothsome black comedy of mordant wit and surprising depth. It's directed by newcomer Sam Mendes, whose previous experience included the controversial Broadway plays Cabaret and The Blue Room. Here he ups the ante with an excellent cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening and Chris Cooper as parents of two dysfunctional suburban families in the late 90s.American Beauty poster

[Note: There are minor spoilers ahead, but nothing that gives away anything important. However, if you wish to go in completely fresh, read no further.]

Spacey and Bening play the unhappily married Burnhams. They have a daughter Jane (Thora Birch) and a nice house in the suburbs, replete with expensive tasteful furniture and a Mercedes SUV. Spacey's character is Lester, a sarcastic but weak-willed advertising writer who inwardly loathes his job and regards his wife with disdain--though he obeys her. Bening is Carolyn: a high-strung career-minded woman with an elaborately coiffured hair, garden, and lifestyle. They have such opposite interests, it's a wonder they can live together.

The film open with videotape footage of Jane complaining about her father. A voice offscreen asks if she'd like him "out of the way." "Yes. Would you?" she deadpans. Then our story begins as Lester's voice-over informs us that he will be dead within a year. It's no spoiler to reveal then that Lester's narration is going to carry the dramatic weight of one beyond the grave, like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. How we arrive at Lester's demise is unexpected, daring, and yet still believable.

Soon into the film, Lester gets a libidinous wake-up call in the form of Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), one of Jane's high school friends. Lester is transfixed by her physical beauty, and makes an ass of himself showing it. Angela notices the older guy leering at her, but instead of being disgusted she appreciates it. As she tells Jane, "I like to know that when I walk by, every guy wants to f*** me. That means I have a good chance of making it as a model." Angela is obsessed with outward appearances, and some of it rubs off on Jane who despite being amply endowed is saving her babysitting funds for a boob job. Kevin Spacey in American Beauty

The presence of Angela and the fact that she leads him on, make Lester an easy target for some radical changes in his life. At a cocktail party during which his wife Carolyn is getting drunk and slobbering over her successful but slimy competitor in the real estate biz, Lester meets the kid who lives next door. His name is Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). We've already been introduced to him as the weird quiet guy who videotapes everything, and whose favorite subject is Jane, in whom he detects an inner beauty. Lester befriends Ricky in an extremely funny pot-smoking scene, and is inspired to quit his job and try to recapture the part of his life when everything was more fun. His job resignation scene is a fantasy of how all of us would like to be able to quit our jobs.

While Lester's life is bent on a path returning to hedonistic pleasures of days gone by, Carolyn takes the opposite course of power-seeking. Lester finds a job with "the least amount of responsibility" while Carolyn sleeps with the slimy realtor Buddy "The King" Kane and takes up gun-shooting. Though satiric, these are both common responses to midlife crises, only they are practiced so extremely in this case that Jane thinks her parents are going crazy. Jane and Ricky eventually become very close. They seem to be the most normal and well-intentioned people in the movie, but outwardly they are regarded as freaks. Ricky's dad Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a strict disciplinarian, somewhat of a tyrant, whose feelings masks some deep-seeded self-loathing.
The Big Picture

American Beauty deals with our fixations on outward appearance. "The worst thing anyone can be is normal," Angela says. We attach labels to others to give ourselves a comfortable niche in relation to them. Mendes explores concept of beauty by teasing out its many forms and playing them against each other. There is physical beauty, the beauty of self-conviction, the beauty of non-inhibition, the beauty of the pregnant moment before a poweful occurance, and the beauty of the minutae of experiences that comprise life. As Ricky (and later Lester) note: it's enough to make one burst. Thus, while Lester is doomed to death he undergoes a catharsis over the film to be able to finally honestly say he can appreciate his life.

I was very impressed with first-time director Sam Mendes and first-time screenwriter Alan Ball. Every character is well-developed and revealed to be more than their initial stereotype would suggest. Mendes shapes the film in chapters, each one beginning with a bird's eye crane shot swooping down into the surburban street. The episodic quality keeps the movie's pace brisk as it teeters toward its cataclysmic ending, reminiscent of The Ice Storm, as it takes place on a rainy night.

The performances are all very good. Spacey, Bening, Birch and Bentley all handle both the comedic and serious material well. Bening skirts going over-the-top but keeps her balance--her character is a shrill one anyway. Spacey's signature smug sarcasm is employed here, but so is an inner kindness that eventually overtakes his juvenile mischieviousness. Special note should be made for Chris Cooper, who for the second time this year plays a strong-willed ballbreaking father of the old-fashioned type (the first time in October Sky). He hits his notes right though, and because he is able to seem real his character comes away all the more powerful in the end.

American Beauty is one of the best films I have seen so far this year. I give it an A-.

Review © August 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Dreamworks SKG