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American Beauty takes a look closer

American Beauty
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula, and Sam Robards
Screenplay: Alan Ball
Producers: Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks
Director: Sam Mendes
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content

American Beauty is a rare treasure of a film. Very rare. Perhaps one-of-a-kind. And who would've guessed? Directed by a Broadway director with no experience on the big screen, and written by the same guy who produced the television series Cybill, American Beauty would seem a dead-in-the-water project. Yet DreamWorks picked it up, produced it, and helped create one of 1999's most haunting visionary achievements.

American Beauty could almost be seen as a companion piece to David Fincher's Fight Club. They complement each other so perfectly that it's hard not to compare the two. Both deal with similar themes (man's disillusionment from this post-feminist, consumerist society) and both tell their stories in completely original and surprising ways. Fincher's film is more complex, but Sam Mendes' film is more subversive. American Beauty quietly sneaks up on you, and ends with a hauntingly beautiful climax that brings tears to your eyes.

Beginning with an afterlife monologue from Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), we view a normal house in a normal neighborhood in an average suburban city. Within a year, Lester will be dead. However, at the beginning of the film, Lester views himself as being dead already. Stuck in the monotony of a boring job that doesn't really need him and a family who doesn't respect him, Lester proceeds through life without much direction. He's lost something, and in voiceover, he complains, "I've never felt this... sedated." One day at work, he is asked to write a letter explaining why he should be kept on staff. This is merely the start of his journey through rediscovery and rebirth.

His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) works as a real estate agent, constantly depressed that her pseudo-competition Buddy "The King" Kane (Peter Gallagher) is able to sell a house as soon as it becomes available. Carolyn has lost something too, but she doesn't quite realize it. When she can't make a sale, she slaps and tells herself to grow up. For her, material possessions are what make a person successful. Their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is angry at her family, and also displeased about her appearance. She investigates breast augmentation while secretly saving up for the operation. Her best friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari, in a breakthrough performance), flaunts her sexuality and believes that being ordinary is the worst fate for a human being.

Angela herself is the catalyst for everything. She catches Lester's eye when she performs at her high school's basketball game, and it sparks something in him. He becomes obsessed with her, dreaming about her and gawking at her. She's not stupid, and plays along, taunting him with her sexuality. The rest of the film deals with Lester's reawakening and its effects on his family. Soon after, Carolyn meets Buddy and asks him what his secret is, which eventually leads to surprising events. Meanwhile, Jane is becoming intrigued by the boy next door, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Ricky works as a drug dealer but hides it from his controlling, ex-military father (Chris Cooper). He's obsessed with beauty, taking a video camera everywhere just so he can capture everything that is beautiful on film. These are two messed up families colliding with each other. Interestingly, the most normal family here is the gay couple living next door (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards).

What can you really say about a film that makes you laugh, cry, and wince in recognition all at the same time? American Beauty is one of the most beautiful films I have ever had the pleasure of seeing, directed by newcomer/Broadway veteran Sam Mendes with a surehandedness that even the most experienced directors in Hollywood are unable to match. There is not a single moment in the film that rings untrue. Even the plot involving Lester and Angela is done with a level of maturity that it isn't disgusting but rather beautiful. It's controversial, but done with such care for the characters that it's almost hard not to want Lester to get Angela. It's provocative and even erotic the way Angela and Lester interact, and their scenes are among the most powerful in the film.

Written by first timer Alan Ball (who previously had worked for the TV show "Cybill"), the script sets up the average family in America today and then slowly peels the layers away to show what's beneath the surface. As Lester puts it, the family is just a front, "a commercial for how normal we are when we're anything but." Ball's screenplay is remarkably intelligent, displaying hilarious comedy as well as insightful and dead-on portrayals of America's suburban culture. Amazingly, Ball keeps everything accessible, never striving for absurdist situations like in David Lynch's similar Blue Velvet. The plot is rather straightforward, but does keep secrets only to reveal them at opportune moments. This is without a doubt the year's best original screenplay, and Ball is to be commended for what he has created here.

Kevin Spacey, as Lester, creates one of the most sympathetic and sadly pathetic characters in recent memory. His performance is truly key to the film's ultimate success. Spacey has come so far in such a short period of time, winning an Oscar in 1995 for his brilliant portrayal in The Usual Suspects. He has only gotten better since then, giving his most complex performance yet. Another Oscar for him is probably waiting for him at the 2000 Academy Award broadcast. Annette Bening gives the performance of her career, and an Oscar nomination is virtually a guarantee. Bening has been good before, but here she is truly magnificent. Thora Birch is surprisingly mature for her age, giving a multifaceted performance as a confused teenager. The real surprise (in the teenage department anyway) is Mena Suvari. Doing a 180-degree turn from this year's American Pie (she's an all-American girl, isn't she?), she gives Angela depth and warmth, all while showing a vulnerability that lies deep under her perfect physique. She thinks being ordinary is the worst thing in the world, but she may end up being just that. Suvari deserves recognition here. Wes Bentley is also surprisingly good, considering it's his first film. Bentley creates the heart of the film, surviving his father's brutality and his mother's vacancy with amazing clarity. He wants everything to be beautiful in the world, and turns his back when it isn't. Chris Cooper gives a heartbreaking performance as a man with a steel facade that covers up a deep secret. Peter Gallagher and Allison Janney give great support (I would have liked a little more insight into Janney's character, but it's a minor quibble). This is far and away the year's most talented cast.

Mendes propels his film along at such a rapid pace that you might find yourself breathless at the amount of subject matter there is to absorb. The pace may be fast, but the feel is slow and languid. The camera isn't in a hurry either. Photographed by Conrad Hall, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, capturing imagery that is both subtle and eye-popping. One shot in particular (that of the Burnham's door in the distance surrounded by rain) is brilliantly executed. The glossy camerawork is wonderfully ironic, contrasting the sordid details that permeate the film. The music score by Thomas Newman perfectly captures the playfulness of the film as well as the dead seriousness during some scenes. Newman's orchestrations are beautiful to listen to and perfectly complement the film. Mendes has assembled an impressive crew, and he's required only the best from them. It shows--this is as near perfect a film as you will see all year.

American Beauty is rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content. What is the "American Beauty" of the title? It's several things, and any one of those meanings could suffice. I personally think one scene in particular sums it up completely. Ricky invites Jane to view what he considers the most beautiful thing he's ever filmed. The video, of a plastic bag dancing in the wind, is jaw-dropping. Tears welled up in my eyes as I viewed this scene, perfectly narrated by Ricky with a haunting monologue. The beauty is everywhere and anywhere. As a whole, the film is brilliant, but this one scene made me realize I was watching something more. There is something more here... just look closer.

**** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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