American Beauty


Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley and Mena Suvari
Released: Oct 1, 1999

Have you ever found yourself in this slightly irritating situation?:
“Wow, that reminds me of that scene in *movie-title*…”
“Oh, I’ve never seen that.”
“You WHAT?!” your friend asks increduously, as if you’ve just commited several varieties of blasphemy. “HOW have you never seen *movie-title*?!” (because the very idea that you haven’t seen their favourite film is ridiculous.)

I’ve been in that situation, a few too many times, and American Beauty is one example that comes to mind. And, admittedly, I find myself asking “How had I never seen this film before?”

The plot:
Lester Burnham (Spacey) is leading an empty, dissatisfied life in American suburbia. His wife Carolyn (Bening) is obsessed with status and his daughter Jane (Birch) hates him. Awakened by his desire for one of Jane’s classmates, he decides to turn his life around.

Tesco put on a DVD display for Valentines Day, boasting many terrible rom-coms, including Bridget Jones’ Diary 2, Did you hear about the Morgans and P.S. I Love You.  And nestled snugly on the top shelf was this film. We spent roughly five seconds deciding on it, and a further ten minutes deciding ‘what kind of creme egg to get’ (It’s a world gone MAD, when there is even a choice! We settled on mini creme eggs, for the lessened sense of guilt…)

Kevin Spacey gives an utterly spell binding performance here, sliding easily from being a wan and lifeless schmo to a take-no-shit-from-anybody wise guy. The sense of relief he feels by being freed from the shackles of routine are shared with the audience. As he tactfully blackmails his boss, rebukes his wife and generally acts like a smartass, we are cheering him on every step of the way. When he yells “I rule!”, you can’t help but agree. He also comes close to being emotionally broken more than once, and the level of control he has over these emotions is frighteningly powerful.

As jubilant a character as Lester is, his wife, Carolyn, is the very antithesis of that. Bening gives an excellent performance, portraying her as wound up as opposed to the run down Lester. Her criticisms of her family are well timed and often very entertaining, whereas her quest to obtain high status is hysterical, most notably in an early scene in which she attempts to sell a house.

The rest of the cast all hand in powerful performances also. A particular standout is newcomer Wes Bentley, who portrays Ricky Fitts. Ricky is an intentionally unnerving character, who provides some of the more profound insights in the film. He has a habit of filming things he finds interesting, which provides an excellent excuse for the director to show off some creative muscle. He employs some simply stunning shots shown throughout with this tool, a bedroom scene with Jane and the plastic bag scene to name but a few.

Therein we see one of the major themes of the film, the very concept of beauty and desire, but also of perception. Ricky seems somewhat demented at first, filming Jane when she isn’t looking and other things such as dead birds. Despite the suspicion his character arouses, he is the most honest out of the entire cast. Trickery plays upon the perception of others, shrouding the true object of their desires.

The director emphasizes this with a truly superb use of framing and colour. The nowhere suburbia has the same washed out and wan quality of Lester at the beginning of the film, with the director favoring blank spaces and dull colours in most of his shots. This is contrasted beautifully by the striking red rose petals that accompany Lesters’ visions of Angela, his daughters friend. These scenes tend to act as a visual slap in the face.

Overall:
American Beauty is a striking film, not just in terms of its visuals, but also in its profound themes. It takes the everyday and delicately steers our perception towards the things that truly matter. In doing so, it unearths some truly touching moments, as well as many light-hearted and hilarious ones. There is a sense of ambiguity towards the end that isn’t particularly necessary, but in no way detracts from the film. Relentlessly entertaining, it is also deeply moving (so much so that, like me, you may get goosebumps three times in the final two minutes). An impossible film to dislike.

Rating: 10/10

” I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up. ” – Lester Burnham

Shamelessly Awful Facts:

  • You know Jane, as in Thora Birch? Know what else she was in? Hocus Pocus. She was the little girl. Now don’t you just feel old?
  • Before going to Tesco to find aforementioned film, I suggested American Pie. Following the film, I text a fellow movie buff who happened to be watching American Psycho. America, it gets everywhere, especially the mind.

This film is kind of like:

  • The well thought out and meaningful lyrics of a classic rock song.

or

  • This picture:

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