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American Beauty (1999)
Added 2001-11-29
by Ronald Bruce Meyer

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American Beauty


Lester Burnham:
(to his wife)
This isn't life, it's just stuff.
And it's become more
important to you than living.
Well, honey,
that's just nuts.

The perfect home. The perfect marriage. The perfect job. The perfect child.

Look closer. It could all be a sham. The home is a fašade masking a life full of possessions but barren of feeling. The marriage is a ruse to hide a crumbling relationship. The job is a boring routine endured to support the empty home and the empty marriage. The child hates her parents and her life, and feels compelled to rebel so that she might feel something -- even disapproval.

In American Beauty, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) narrates the last year of his life. And Lester's life is stuck -- stuck in a passionless marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening), who sells real estate as a substitute for sex; stuck with a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), who hates him, yearns to enhance her already generous breasts, and rebels by dating the drug-dealing boy next door (Wes Bentley); stuck in a job he hates, and that hates him back. He begins the film a loser, finds a reason for living in his lust for his daughter's girlfriend, Angela (Mena Suvari), and in the end gets everything he wants -- only to die, after all. How much like real life is that?

While this is Kevin Spacey's movie, and he is perfect for the part (he won an Oscar for it, after all), there are some excellent supporting performances. In her lust to succeed in real estate, Carolyn (Bening) leaps into the bed of her competitor (Peter Gallagher). In her search for feeling, Jane (Birch) dates Ricky (Bentley), the darkly mysterious new boy next door, who has a thing for videotaping dead birds, bags dancing in the breeze, and his next-door neighbors through the window. Jane's girlfriend, Angela (Suvari), is so insecure about herself that she talks like a slut and tries to seduce Jane's father. On the other hand, there is Ricky's father (Chris Cooper), an ex-Marine married to a catatonic wife (Allison Janney of TV's "West Wing"). He hates homosexuals (especially the two living together on his block -- Scott Bakula and Sam Robards ), regularly tests his son for drugs, and beats him up when he's disobedient.

You think the Burnhams aren't like anyone you know? Maybe you need to look closer. Maybe there's a Lester Burnham on your block. Maybe he just quit his job, told his boss to go f*** himself and blackmailed him for $60,000. After all, Lester Burnham is like many of us: life has passed him by; he's lost his way, lost his reason for living, maybe even lost his reason. Maybe it will take only one more thing to push him over that edge -- or one more thing to motivate him to get it all back. Lester ends his life living like there's no tomorrow because, somewhere deep inside, he knows there is no tomorrow. He knows his life is a sham, but now he can admit it and change it. And he's not going to let anything get in the way of reclaiming his freedom and his spirit.

Look closer. American Beauty (which is also a breed of rose) is a dark comedy about the dark comedy of life. It's American because the lives, at least on the outside, look typically American. This is a film about loss: loss of respect, loss of youth, loss of love, loss of hope. It is a film about life: about the despair, the emptiness, the loneliness. Yet, for all that, this film says that in this world there is still great beauty.

American Beauty (1999) 121 mins. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Alan Ball. Cast: Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, Annette Bening as Carolyn Burnham, Thora Birch as Jane Burnham, Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts, Mena Suvari as Angela Hayes, Peter Gallagher as Buddy Kane, Allison Janney as Barbara Fitts, Chris Cooper as Colonel Frank Fitts, Scott Bakula as Jim Olmeyer, Sam Robards as Jim 'JB' Berkley, Barry Del Sherman as Brad Dupree (Lester's boss), Amber Smith as Christy Kane (Buddy's trophy wife). And Paula Abdul gets a choreographer credit!
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.

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