American Beauty

on September 15, 1999 by Annlee Ellingson
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The tagline for Sam Mendes' feature film debut reads, "...look closer," a mantra that Mendes repeats over and over as he dissects the modern American family. Lester and Carolyn Burnham (Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening) are a couple living the American dream. His 14-year stint at a computer magazine and her independent real estate business have provided for all that defines success: a two-story house in the suburbs, a silk-upholstered couch, a white picket fence adorned with rich red roses. But somewhere along the way, their relationship disintegrated and is now plagued by an undercurrent of contempt that's contaminated their daughter Jane (Thora Birch).
After meeting (and subsequently fantasizing about) Jane's blonde bombshell best friend Angela (Mena Suvari) and realizing that he's about to lose his job due to company cutbacks, Lester blackmails his boss and packs his desk, choosing to spend his time working out and smoking pot instead. Spacey superbly captures just how goofy it is to be the dad of a teenage girl, inspiring sympathy from the audience even in his vilest moments.
Bening, on the other hand, suffers from a caricaturized role as the enemy. In response to her husband's new lifestyle, Carolyn engages in an extramarital affair with her competitor and releases stress at a local shooting range. Already fanatically regurgitating self-help affirmations and physically beating herself up at any hint of failure, her husband's dramatic life adjustment prompts even more bizarre behavior, effectively alienating her completely from the audience.
Meanwhile, their daughter takes tentative steps toward first love with Ricky (Wes Bentley), the son of a Marine officer next door who funds his videotaping pastime by selling dope and is the only character in this story mature enough to understand what real beauty is.
Alan Ball's script strips away this family's carefully constructed appearance, revealing the misery that lies beneath a glossy fa├žade with both pointed humor (the kind that elicits the nervous laughter that stems from self-recognition) and poignant drama.
Mendes, the director of Broadway's Nicole Kidman-baring "The Blue Room," uses this new medium masterfully to reflect the themes of the script, focusing on mirrors, windows (both as transparent and reflective surfaces) and a video camera to explore how we look at ourselves and at others, sometimes combining these elements to further complicate the image's meaning. (For example, Ricky videotapes Jane's reflection in a mirror through her bedroom window.) Mendes seems to particularly appreciate the dramatic possibilities of the extreme close-up.
"American Beauty" is that rare instance where all the elements of a movie--story, setting, acting, shot construction--come together to convey its message. And although discontent disguised by living the American dream isn't a new theme, its never been rendered so beautifully. Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley and Mena Suvari. Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Alan Ball. Produced by Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks. A DreamWorks release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content. Running time: 120 min.
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