Friday, October 29, 1999

American Beauty / ***1/2 (1999)

Like the river water as it moves down a cascade of sharp rocks, "American Beauty" sails with a stubborn and unrelenting distinction, only for it to arrive at a turbulent climactic moment that surprises even the characters. Here is a movie that deals with the dysfunction of the American dream, leaves us questioning our own family values, and looking closer for the "hidden beauty" of all things existing. In many ways, this it is reminiscnent of Ang Lee’s "The Ice Storm" – both have foregrounds as elegant as a Thomas Kinkade painting, while the interior lives are occupied by everlasting tribulations and selfish impulses.

The only gap that separates Lee’s film from “American Beauty,” perhaps, is the approach. The earlier picture was about the cruel inflictions of two disturbing households, and found that there were no happy endings for people who had no regrets. This movie, while dark and intrusive, finds a buried humor in these messed up lives, and as we explore them we find ourselves chuckling uncomfortable as scenarios play out with unrestrained sarcasm. Sam Menendes' production, filled with exuberant photography, generates an audience's interest with thought-provoking perceptions on the true nature (or "beauty") of common American family life, but as a director he also finds quirky performances from Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning, who seem inspired by a style that demands reaching for camp value.

Spacey plays Lester, a 42-year-old with a mid-life crisis, and an incessant urge to fantasize about his daughter's teenage friend. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a frustrated and critical real estate agent who is so bored in her marriage that she takes to sleeping with a boss. At the center of their household is Jane (Thora Birch), a teenage girl with self-loathing issues who is saving up money for breast augmentation (she doesn’t need it, but that’s plays into the emphasis of her character). We initially wonder why two opposites like Carolyn and Lester have made is so far in marriage. Are they attracted to the vitriol they spit at each other? Are they scared of staying alone? Are they obligated to remain because of their daughter? Mendes points to the obvious irony, which is that suburban households are usually filled with simpletons incapable of breaking free from monotony, all despite their functional facades.

Poor Jane has other issues driving the dynamic. Her best friend, played enthusiastically by a young Mena Suvari, eggs her father on when it becomes obvious he is attracted to her. An eccentric neighbor played by Wes Bentley takes an almost fetishistic liking to her, and she isn’t creeped out by the notion; their bond is that they both seem understood by their ambivalent households. And then the boy’s father, a paranoid homophobic military man, complicates his relationships further with suspicion, subjecting him to random drug tests and discipline out of a bizarre worry for negative behaviors.

While fights and rejections continue between Lester and Carolyn, the movie turns its focus to Jane and Ricky, who are written like two doomed lovers in a Shakespeare play, caught between families that would be much better off consuming one another rather than everyone else. There is a sense of sardonic perspective that erupts from the erosion of these two houses, though: every person is decisively withdrawn from caring about others, and the prospect of putting one's needs before his or her own is an impulse that is beyond their sphere (although the movie contrasts that trend with two gay guy neighbors who seem to care a lot more than they should).

This setup is not without some drawbacks. In 120 minutes, "American Beauty" has difficulty in keeping with its structure. There is an unsteady pace here, made all the more uneven by the lack of focus on certain other characters and overemphasis on others. Spacey’s lester owns his role in a marvelous, deeply thought-provoking manner, but Annette Bening is keeps Carolyn at one note, perhaps because the film keeps her at the second tier. Is her overacting, therefore, a facet of the character, or is she trying to chew up scenes out of fear of being upstaged?

Recommending this movie is hardly a problem. Here is a picture that owns its wit, its droll sensibility, and has a lot of relevant things to argue against. But calling it the best film the year is argumentative. Others have certainly done just that, and with plausible reasons. Any number of performances going on here are insightful and sharp. The material is well played, sometimes uncomfortable funny. But there are times we don’t always know what goal it has in mind, and I was put off by a third-act voiceover that contradicts the continuity of the climax. Still, for those who saw “The Ice Storm” and were moved by its sad suggestions, “American Beauty” more than matches that sensibility.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama (US); 1999; Rated R; 120 Minutes

Kevin Spacey: Lester Burnham
Annette Bening: Carolyn Burnham
Thora Birch: Jane Burnham
Wes Bentley: Ricky Fitts
Mena Suvari: Angela Hayes

Produced by Alan Ball, Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks and Stan Wlodkowski; Directed by Sam Mendes; Screenwritten by Alan Ball

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