movie review by
Gary Johnson



(© 1999 DreamWorks LLC. All rights reserved.)

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American Beauty
Recently, American suburbia has been placed under the microscope by American filmmakers. Movies such as The Ice Storm, Happiness, and Election have suggested that a certain hollowness has taken root and spread like cancer throughout suburbia. The American Dream has turned rotten. People are unsatisfied with their lives but they have trouble articulating that dissatisfaction. Families can't communicate (The Ice Storm), a high school teacher has sex with a student (Election), and a father develops sexual urges for children (Happiness).

American Beauty is the most recent addition to this group of movies. It's a blisteringly funny expose of the deep-seated loathing and anger that threatens to rip a family apart. But this is no ordinary suburban tale. It's laced with enough irony and cynicism that it recalls that gloriously vicious form of American cinema, the film noir. In the opening moments, the movie directly quotes Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. Whereas Sunset Boulevard opened with its main character, Joe Gillis, face down in a swimming pool, American Beauty opens with its main character, a suburban husband named Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), providing us voice-over narration that says, "In less than a year, I'll be dead Of course, I don't know that yet."

As the camera slowly prowls though a bathroom, we find Lester taking a hot shower. And what's this? His right arm seems to be moving rhythmically from his groin. Could it be? The steam covers up the naughty bits, but Lester's narration confirms our fears: he's jerking off in the shower! "This will be the high point of my day," he says. "It's all down hill from here."

This is one of the hallmark features of American Beauty: it makes no bones about ripping back the veneer from the lives of its central characters and revealing them at their most vulnerable. In fact, its those moments that the movie seems to live for. For example, when Lester's wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), a real estate agent, prepares one of her properties for an open house, she strips to just her slip as she vacuums the floor and scrubs the counters while reciting her mantra: "I will sell this house today." And when she fails to the sell the house, the camera shows us as Carolyn begins to sob.

This go-for-the-jugular brand of filmmaking isn't necessarily new. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? made us witnesses to George and Martha's vicious verbal sparing, and The Graduate showed us the awkward late night rendezvous of Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson. However, American Beauty sets itself apart from the rest of the pack with the character of Lester Burnham. He's one of the most unusual characters to grace an American film.

"Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser--and they're right," he says. He knows his life sucks: he hasn't had sex with his wife in years, he rarely talks to his daughter, and he's in danger of losing his job. But one evening, while attending a high school basketball game where his daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), makes her debut on the drill team, he becomes transfixed while watching one of the drill team girls--Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). His jaw drops to the floor. He had never imagined anything could be so beautiful. As he watches her perform her dance routine, nothing exists except for Angela. He imagines rose petals floating from her lips and billowing from her breasts. And later, after his daughter brings Angela over to spend the night, Lester babbles to her like a schoolboy with a crush. Jane watches in horror: "I need a father who's a role model--not some geek who'll spray his shorts whenever I bring a girl home from school," she later confides to a friend.

Initially, this infatuation makes Lester even more pathetic. Now he's eavesdropping outside his daughter's bedroom door, hoping to hear Angela mention his name. But eventually something even more unusual happens. Lester's infatuation begins to change his entire outlook on life: "I feel like I've been in a coma for about 20 years and I'm just now waking up." Much to the chagrin of his wife and daughter, he stops being a doormat. They had grown to accept their dismal lives, but now that Lester is changing they don't know what to do. He's taking charge of his life. He starts jogging, he quits his job (after blackmailing his employer for $60,000), and he buys the car of his dreams. "He's doing massive psychological damage to me," Jane says.

Meanwhile, Lester's wife begins having an affair with the local real estate king (Peter Gallagher): "Fuck me, Your Highness!" she yells with her legs wrapped around her head. And a strange neighbor boy begins surreptitiously videotaping the neighborhood. His home life is in turmoil, but through the viewfinder of his camera, he only sees beauty. While watching a plastic bag blowing in the wind, he says, "My heart fills up like a balloon--and it's about to burst."

This theme of beauty is of paramount importance in American Beauty--particularly as Lester begins to awaken from his "coma." Carolyn tends her garden with nurturing love--but she pays little attention to what's happening within her home. Taking care of the family's stuff has (according to Lester) "become more important than living." She has defined her own happiness in terms of external appearances--with little regard for the deep-seated dissatisfaction that has turned her into an emotional icebox.

The movie makes the case that beauty surrounds us, if we only know how look for it, if only we possess the patience and humility to look for it among the commonplace. In contrast to the sterile, cultivated beauty on display among the suburban dwellers of American Beauty, it's a powerful argument.

Much of the credit for the success of American Beauty must also go to the actors. Kevin Spacey gives one of the great performances of the past decade. His Lester convincingly moves from dissatisfied schmuck to laid-back smoothy. In the movie's early scenes, Lester's shoulders are hunched, but as the movie progresses Lester begins to ooze confidence. His frowns turn to shit-eating grins. "I'm just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose," he says, as he learns to turn his directionless life into a weapon against the outside world. Don't be surprised if Spacey walks away with the Best Actor Academy Award. And the rest of the cast is almost on the same level. To the outside world, Annette Bening's Carolyn is all smiles and laughs. But we can see past her perkiness to the frenzied intensity just beneath the surface. Mena Suvari's Angela is a blissfully self-centered creation: "When people I don't know look at me and want to fuck me, I know I've got a chance at being a model," Angela says. She actually feeds off of Lester's puppy dog looks. And Thora Birch is perfectly obnoxious as Lester and Carolyn's daughter. Jane doesn't attempt to conceal her hatred for her parents. "Someone should just put him out of his misery," she says about her father.

American Beauty is one of the most wickedly funny movies ever made. Coming from first time director Sam Mendes, from a screenplay by first timer Alan Ball, it's a startling blast of caustic vitriol. Not since Steven Soderbergh's debut film Sex, Lies, and Videotape has a first-time filmmaker provided such a fresh and funny portrait of twisted American mores. American Beauty feels like a classic.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]