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Dustin Putman

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American Beauty (1999)
4 Stars

Directed by Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards.
1999 – 120 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, profanity, sex, nudity, and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 9, 1999.

In recent years, films centering on dysfunctional families have been on the uprise, from Jodie Foster's 1995 sophomore directing effort, 'Home for the Holidays,' to 1997's tragic Ang Lee drama, 'The Ice Storm,' to 1998's Todd Solondz black comedy, 'Happiness.' The question, of course, is why are today's filmmakers so interested in depicting the clearly unstable relationships going on within a seemingly normal American household? And the answer, no doubt, is that its appeal stems from the viewer being able to relate to the characters and circumstances because, let's face it, no family is 'normal,' whatever that may mean. 'The Ice Storm' was a searing film about the way some parents unknowingly fail their children due to their own shortcomings and selfishness, as was the shockingly brutal 'Happiness,' about the dark areas that hide within the exterior calm of suburbia, but no film that I have ever seen has portrayed a family, or families, in this case, with quite the unnerving honesty and sharp-eyed realism and sympathy of 'American Beauty,' Sam Mendes' flawless, heartbreaking directing debut. Simply put, it is the most thought-provoking and powerful motion picture of the whole decade.

To summarize the premise is to trivialize its multi-layered and clearly-defined characters, and the wholly unpredictable story developments, but here goes. Like Robert Altman's most impressive work (1975's 'Nashville,' 1993's 'Short Cuts'), 'American Beauty' is a meticulously-written tapestry of the lives of two families living side-by-side in a suburban neighborhood in Anywhere, USA. Occasionally narrated by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle-aged man stuck in an emotionally dead and artificial marriage with Carolyn (Annette Bening), a real-estate agent, he tells us right from the very first scene that in a year, he will be dead, even though he doesn't know it yet. Without being told the particulars of his impending death, Lester decides to stop living his life the way everyone else expects him to, and immediately quits his sickeningly bland office job. Everything comes into focus for him when, while attending a high school basketball game to see his teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), perform as a cheerleader, his undivided attention moves towards the most beautiful girl he's ever seen: the pixie-like, alluring Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), who also happens to be a high school student and Jane's best friend. Soon, Lester is lifting weights and smoking pot, free of all worries aside from hoping to have a chance with the sexually promiscuous Angela. Meanwhile, Carolyn starts having an affair with 'The King' (Peter Gallagher), the most successful real estate agent in the town and the figure whom she most wants to be like. Due to Lester and Carolyn's obvious failure as parents and their own self-involvement, they don't realize how neglected they are making Jane feel, and Angela is no help, as she is constantly bragging about her latest sexual conquests and repeated success in everything she does. Saving up money for a breast augmentation, even though she doesn't need it, and with the self-esteem of an gnat, Jane luckily finds solace in the form of 18-year-old Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a dark, offbeat senior whom she first meets when she catches him filming her with his video camera, something he is never without. Ricky has also just moved in next door to the Burnham's, complete with a strict ex-Marine father (Chris Cooper) who checks his urine every few months to make sure he isn't on drugs, and a mother (Allison Janney) who inhabits the house as, more or less, a living zombie with no spontaneity of life left in her.

'American Beauty,' which superficially refers to either Angela's physical appearance or the flowers Carolyn is growing in her garden, actually gets its name from the positive, existential way in which Ricky looks at the world. Constantly filming and documenting even the smallest thing with his camera, Ricky has escaped the unhappiness of his actual home life by finding simple beauty within the world, and in one lyrical sequence, he shows Jane 'the most beautiful thing I've ever filmed,' which is the surprisingly extraordinary sight of a plastic bag blowing around outside on a blustery winter day, right before a snowfall. By looking closer at the people, objects, and nature around him, Ricky has discovered a truth within the world that not many people have the priviledge of ever seeing, and sometimes, he says, 'the world is filled with so much beauty, I feel like I can't take it.' It is Ricky who also acts as the catalyst for Lester's drastic, personality-altering changes, as he believes that life is too short to waste your time doing what others expect you to do, and instead, should simply live your life as if each second were your last.

In scene after marvelous scene, the trials, tribulations, and experiences of family life is portrayed as accurately as it ever has been in a fictional film, and every detail hits the bull's-eye. And as in real life, the film is carefully-structured in a way that it often feels like we are watching a series of moments in the lives of a group of people, rather than a cut-and-paste story, like so many conventional films fall victim to. The way Carolyn breaks down and cries in frustration after failing to sell a house; the way Ricky, camera in hand, zooms in on Jane's bedroom window, past Angela seductively dancing, and onto the mirror image of Jane smiling; the way Lester, liberated from quitting his job, belts out the 70s rock song, 'American Woman,' by The Guess Who, as he drives down the street; the way Lester sneaks into Jane's room to find Angela's telephone number, only to hang up after calling this young girl who is at least twenty-five years younger than he; the way Jane, realizing she is falling in love, takes Ricky's hand and puts it in her own; the way Carolyn tries to have an honest mother-daughter moment, only for her to outrageously accuse Jane of being 'an ungrateful little brat'; and the way Ricky's mom, an enormously depressed woman, doesn't even hear her son walk over to her and say, 'Hi,' are just a handful of individual moments that come together to form a magnificent whole, and that isn't even mentioning the tour de force climax, set on a stormy night, that left me physically reacting to the proceedings on-screen, on the edge of completely losing my composure with strong conflicting emotions of shock, curiosity, and absolute devastation.

There is no possible cast that could have improved upon this stunning group of actors, nor is there any way to pin-point just one outstanding performance. All six of the central thesps deserve Academy Award nominations come next year, and it would be criminal to overlook their incomparable work here. Kevin Spacey, a former Oscar winner for 1995's 'The Usual Suspects,' gives his best performance to date, and one that is filled with such an overwhelming air of freedom that it is a treat just to watch him work. A man lacking in parenting skills, it isn't that Lester doesn't love Jane, but just that he is thoroughly fed up with his dead-end existence, and feels that it's about time he does what he wants to do.

Annette Bening, in her second stunning turn this year alone (after the underrated, overlooked 'In Dreams'), successfully paints her character of Carolyn with a vital mixture of coldness and misery. Always hiding behind a phony facade of joy while out in public, she is desperate to fool everyone else into believing that she has an ideal marriage with Lester, even though they haven't actually been intimate in a long time. It seems the only thing keeping them from getting a divorce is their fear that it will only hurt Jane even more; little do they know it's probably making things even more of a disaster, as Jane has openly told Ricky herself that, 'they've got to be psychologically damaging me in some way.'

Thora Birch, a 17-year-old actress who has been appearing in feature films for eleven years, and someone I have watched closely since 1991 when she gave an Oscar-caliber performance in 'Paradise,' practically blew me away with the maturity and self-assuredness that she has gained as an actress since her last major role, in 1996's terrible 'Alaska.' Birch, easily outdistancing the best performances from some of her peers, such as Christina Ricci and Gaby Hoffmann, is poignant and effective as the sullen Jane, and due to some surprisingly adult material, it obviously took a great deal of courage on her part, and she should be commended for it. Jane's relationship with her uninvolved parents is summed up early on when she matter-of-factly tells her father, 'you've barely spoken to me in the last six months.'

Newcomer Wes Bentley, who won the important, decidedly difficult role of Ricky over many of Hollywood's major young stars, is striking and intense throughout, but also affecting, as this misunderstood teenager whose only claim to happiness is in his magical, bright-eyed world view. After all, he certainly doesn't get much familial support from his hot-tempered father, vividly and three-dimensionally played by Chris Cooper (1999's 'October Sky'), or his zoned-out mother, in a performance of almost unbearable despair by the usually comedic actress, Allison Janney (1999's 'Drop Dead Gorgeous').

And finally, Mena Suvari is a real discovery as the self-absorbed Angela, the character who triggers Lester's lust. Last appearing as the sweet choir girl, Heather, in this summer's 'American Pie,' Suvari makes a full 180-degree turn to present us with a distinct character who, like everyone else, turns out to have many multiple layers behind her 'cool' exterior. Angela, who judges her chances on becoming a model based on her desirability and the amount of people she has sex with, fears nothing worse than being ordinary, something that, if she would just stop to notice, she very well could be.

With a haunting, unnerving music score, by Thomas Newman; astoundingly gorgeous cinematography, by Conrad L. Hall, in which every frame and lighting decision turns out to be extremely important in its visual collage of the bleak corners in these characters' seemingly happy lives, as well as in the showstopping way it observes the things most people take for granted, such as a tree, or a person's face; and most importantly, in the literally pitch-perfect screenplay, by Alan Ball, 'American Beauty' is an instant American film classic, and one that cannot be labelled under a certain genre, as it has both drama and comedy, both of which are sparked from its natural dialogue and sharp human observations. Entirely unpredictable as life's fortuitous turns and developments usually are, what we have here is a painstakingly on-target portrait of the human condition, as seen through the eyes of a group of always-original characters. Better yet, none of them are ever shortchanged or judged, nor are all of their dimensions revealed immediately, but instead, we learn about them as their true selves are gradually revealed. Because of this, there are no good or bad guys, but rather wholly sympathetic creations that, in one way or another, any adult or teenager will be able to identify with. By the time the ending arrived, a simply-filmed emotional powerhouse, the film had so deeply involved me that I felt as if I had known these characters all my life, and therefore, what happened to them meant just as much, if not more, to me, than in any other film I have ever seen. 'American Beauty' is a devastating motion picture of unconceivable power, made with both intelligence and care, and it may just cause you to reevaluate the whole way you view the world. In an overstuffed Fall movie season don't let this film fall through the cracks; it deserves all of the recognition and acclaim that has already been bestowed upon it, and should be trumpeted as an important turning point in the art of filmmaking, particularly with the start of the new millenium so quickly approaching. In one word, 'American Beauty' is beautiful.
© 1999 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman