movie film review | chris tookey

American Beauty

© 1999 - Dreamworks - all rights reserved
  American Beauty Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
Average Rating
8.88 /10
Lester Burnham: Kevin Spacey , Carolyn Burnham: Annette: Bening , Jane Burnham: Thora Birch
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Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Alan Ball

Released: 1999
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 120

Kevin Spacey (pictured left) gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man despised by his social-climbing wife (Annette Bening, pictured right) and sullenly resentful teenage daughter (Thora Birch). "They think I'm this gigantic loser," he tells us, "And they're right. I have lost something. I didn't always feel this… sedated." Into Lester's less than lively home-life gyrates one of his daughter's fellow-cheerleaders (Mena Suvari), a blonde, aspiring model and self-publicised sexual predator. Lester embarks on some embarrassingly corny fantasies about her, most of them involving petals from his wife's favourite rose, American Beauty. We know Lester's making a fool of himself, but we can sympathise with his search for beauty and physical intimacy.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Lester's career prospects are behind him. He's a second-rate journalist serving third-rate bosses. So when Lester is asked to draw up his own job description (one of those ploys that modern companies use to justify future redundancies) he bravely describes the hardest part of his work as "masking my contempt for the "assholes in charge". Then, when they fire him, he blackmails them into giving him a generous severance payment.

This is one of those scenes which will have virtually every wage-slave in the audience emitting a silent cheer.

Meanwhile Lester's wife is cracking up in her pursuit of success as an estate agent. She is falling into the arms of a professional rival (Peter Gallagher) whom she can look up to, literally and metaphorically. Lester is understanding when his taller, darker, more handsome rival seems unable to remember him from one social occasion to the next. "It's all right," Lester smiles encouragingly, "I wouldn't remember me either."

Nor does he care, even slightly, when he discovers they are having an affair (the scene in which he does is a hilarious cameo of other people's social embarrassment.) Lester's air of superior detachment makes his wife even madder - mad enough, perhaps, to kill him.

For, as we discover early on, Lester has only a year to live, and a growing queue of people willing to kill him. The first thing we see in the movie is his daughter suggesting to her boyfriend (Wes Bentley) that he murder her father, and the boyfriend - a voyeuristic variant on the traditional boy next door - looks quite weird and disturbed enough to carry out the contract.

Even more sinister is the boy's father (Chris Cooper), an authoritarian ex-Marine with a wife (Allison Janney) who's practically catatonic, and a cache of firearms and Nazi memorabilia locked up in his study.

Alan Ball's screenplay is skilful at keeping us guessing whodunit (or who's going to do it) right up to the end. It is not so successful at creating supporting characters that avoid cliche. Thora Birch's role looks like a retread of similar disaffected adolescents, usually played by Christina Ricci. Not even Chris Cooper, that fine actor from Lone Star, can prevent us from feeling a sense of deja vu when his dirty little secret is revealed.

Annette Bening gives a bravura impression of a yuppie having a nervous breakdown, but her character is such an exaggerated caricature that it's hard to believe she is entirely real.

And there's something rather bland and superficial about Lester's rebellion. It takes the form of smoking pot, listening to Jimi Hendrix, ogling teenage girls and taking more exercise: not all that elevating or, indeed, revolutionary.

However, Spacey is marvellous at making us feel sympathy for Lester. Just like Edward Norton in Fight Club, he yearns to feel something again; and finding that ability to feel and see the beauty in things (which is paralleled in the emotional development of his daughter) means that at least he dies happy.

Lester's semi-detachment from his own problems has charm; the honesty of his self-criticism is refreshing; and even the potentially nauseating sequence of him seducing his daughter's friend is handled with taste.

Some moments are truly touching, such as the one towards the end when Lester hears that his own daughter is in love. He pauses, thinks, smiles and says simply "Good for her."

As social satire, American Beauty comes out snapping at familiar targets and proves itself fairly toothless - which may be one reason it has won such acclaim from the baby-boom generation. It's Clintonism made celulloid - Blairism plus a taste for illicit sex. Yet it has a warmth which saves it from being just another facile sideswipe at the American Dream.

The central reason for its appeal is that the fear of growing old and not being respected by one's nearest and dearest is a universal worry, and it's never been more deftly or humorously portrayed. The movie resembles Ang Lee's masterly The Ice Storm in the brilliance of its ensemble acting, the cool way it dissects middle-class, Me-generation angst and reaches a grand emotional climax on a dark and stormy night; but it's funnier and less judgmental, and will be accessible to a wider audience. It also resembles Todd Solondz's Happiness in its frankness on sexual matters - which is why a few people will dislike this movie intensely.

It lacks the visual originality of Fight Club and the willingness of Happiness to challenge its audience's assumptions, so it must stand a great chance. And director Sam Mendes's symbolism is a little too self-consciously arty, as is his sub-Antonioni use of red throughout, which will endear it to the incurably pretentious. But it’s an auspicious debut by Mendes, who uses his theatrical background to good effect, trusting his actors and giving them space to work.

This is an intelligent, perceptive film for grown-ups - a treasurable rarity. And, though it's quintessentially American, it's sufficiently universal to cause many of us to make a few sharp, uneasy comparisons with our own lives.

Key to Symbols