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American Beauty

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 8 October 1999


Directed by Sam Mendes.

Starring Kevin Spacey, 
Annette Bening, Thora Birch, 
Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, 
Allison Janney, Wes Bentley 
and Peter Gallagher.

Written by Alan Ball. 

Rising one morning from the miasma of the sheets on his marriage bed, we see that Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is alone, the other side of the bed being conspicuously vacated. Outside, in the front yard, his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is tending her rose garden. Lester points out for us, before we have the chance to notice, that the fact that the green on the handles of her rose clippers and on her gardening clogs matches -- "that's no mistake."

While taking his morning shower, we are informed that the bit of autoeroticism Lester engages in while under the water will, truly, be the high point of his day. Breakfast will include an encounter with his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch), a sullen girl who regards her parents with open contempt and makes no pretense over the sham their family has become. Jane gives the impression that she can hardly wait to be away from them for the day -- she seems to despise how they've allowed themselves to become the misshapen people that they are, as if parents should have known better. Lester seems to agree with her, in an unspoken way. Framed photographs of the family they used to be, in days gone by, dot the interior of the house like shrapnel.

Lester goes to his job, a dead-end position on a magazine staff where he has to feign being cheerful and cooperative over the phone for so long that it has become parrot-like, a verbal equivalent to Lillian Gish's character having to coax the corners of her mouth up to form a smile in Broken Blossoms. He continues with the same, cheerful tone when his much-younger boss calls him into his office. The cheerfulness drops like a stone when he is handed a form and asked to fill out a job description describing what he does at an office where he has been working for 14 years -- the sort of playful cat-toying-with-mouse thing that causes employees to shudder with dread over the possible impending use of words like "attrition".

Carolyn, meanwhile, psyched up on taped self-assurance lectures, goes about her job as realty agent. "I am going to sell this house, today!" she tells herself, and proceeds to clean the floors and counters in her slip. As she shows the place to various potential buyers, we notice, though, that the wallpaper in some rooms is hideous, the stone fireplace in the main room has taken on a rancid colour, and the kidney-shaped pool is surrounded by leaves that have not been swept up. (It is also not "lagoon-like", as the literature described it, one buyer points-out.) At the end of the day, after she has pulled the blinds and started crying uncontrollably, Carolyn hits herself and berates herself until she stops.

Then, it's home for dinner, an exhausted family ritual. Jane complains about the Peggy Lee and Bobby Darin recordings that play in the background while they eat. Carolyn retorts, in the same upbeat tones that she used with her realty customers, that, when Jane starts preparing "healthful, nutritious meals" for herself, then she can have control over what music is played during dinner. Lester's reaction to this is to announce that he's going into the kitchen to get some ice cream.

For the most part, American Beauty, director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball's systematic satire of families floundering within middle-class suburbia, is explosively funny, with lines and moments that are so acutely observant that they make you laugh partly out of astonishment and partly because of they're funny, that you wait with rising anticipation to see what is going to jar these characters out of their orbits. It also accomplishes the feat of being rueful yet creating characters that are, at times, intensely sympathetic. Their world may be a little crazy, a little more surreal, but it is identifiable. It is the kind of world which could be waiting around the corner for anyone.

Lester, with Carolyn, puts in an appearance one night at a high school game they promised to attend to see the cheerleading routine that Jane has been slaving on of late, and he lays eyes on another cheerleader, and Jane's friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), and Lester, suddenly, slowly, gently, begins to gradually fall into space. Kevin Spacey's face assumes an expression of wonderment, astonishment, adoration, and unfettered delight as he watches this petite, nubile young girl, with blond hair and the look of a cocotte from a Zola novel, swing her limbs as if only for him and seeming to single his eyes out from all the others in the crowd. The fantasy ends with an astonishing visual image -- a recurring motif in the film -- that involves a cloud of rising, ruby red rose pedals, both beautiful and intoxicating

Of course, we learn that Angela has already become one smart cookie: she's figured out what she wants in life, how men can play a part in it, and how she can get things from them. Lester, ground down and desperate, doesn't know what he's in for. When he overhears Angela tell Jane that he would look much better if he only built himself up more, Lester immediately retrieves the handbells from the garage.

The other occurrence that affects the Burnham household is the arrival of their new neighbors, the Fittses -- the father (Chris Cooper) a former Colonel in the Marines, mother Barbara (Allison Janney, with long, straight hair and the serene severity of a figure in an Andrew Wyeth landscape), and teenage son Ricky (Wes Bentley). Ricky records tape after tape with his camcorder, and turns his attention on the windows of the Burnham household by nightfall. At the same time, Lester meets Ricky during a catered party where the two guys step out back to share a joint, and when Carolyn discovers him, Lester suddenly experiences the sensation of burbling out what is on his mind -- and not caring what effect it'll have. Ricky senses what Lester needs, and between the free-weights and the excellent pot, Lester is soon speaking his mind a lot -- and in such a way that he starts enjoying himself for the first time in years, throwing the yokes that have accumulated around his neck, one by one, off.

Kevin Spacey has been doing intriguing work as far back as Henry and June, in 1990, and he scored a triple-whammy in 1995 with his performances in Outbreak, The Usual Suspects, and his unbilled appearance in Seven. And he has alternated this with stage work, most recently as Hickey in a New York production of The Iceman Cometh. Spacey has a great egalitarian face and an infectious smile, like the pal you always wish you had. But he really steps out in American Beauty. Spacey's performance is something of a revelation -- he does some very tricky, very precise work, and moves in some pretty daring territory, but he's sure of himself and what he's doing, and Lester Burnham's liberation and relief, of letting-go and yet feeling finally in charge of his life, infuses the whole film with a great, spiraling energy. (And audiences seem to be wholeheartedly responding to it.)

Bening's Carolyn, for her part, is increasingly astonished and indignant at her husband's behavior -- which she would be, because she's become the kind of a person who needs everything to be "grounded" in her life in order to pull out of herself what she expects herself to do and how she expects herself to act every day. She may want to keep her husband emasculated and in his regular routine, but, like Lester, Carolyn is in fact a victim of her own making. The filmmakers know this, and Bening, who did a remarkably well-realized performance earlier this year in In Dreams, knows this, and Carolyn becomes farcical without ever turning into a simple harridan or a clichéd henpecker. She gets to kick her heels up a bit, too, with none other than her rival, Buddy Kane the Real Estate King (Peter Gallagher), who introduces her to a number of new thrills, including, as it turns out, guns. Bening's Carolyn gets a great, wild expression across her face as she discharges rounds at the local firing range (and gets compliments on her firearm handling, too) which only goes towards keeping the film's energy level high, as if the film itself were shaking its head, amazed, at what the characters have gotten themselves into.

Thora Birch (earlier seen as the adorable daughter of Harrison Ford and Anne Archer's characters in Patriot Games), has, as Jane, the beautiful, oval face of a Renaissance-era maiden by Piero della Francesca, with the exception that, even when she's out-of-doors, she still seems to be black-lit. She and Wes Bentley's Ricky seem drawn to each other subconsciously, figures whose eyes meet across a blasted landscape and who recognize something in each other immediately. Wes Bentley's face is something else, with wide, squared cheekbones and forehead, and eyebrows that seem to leap upwards in the middle as they travel over his eyes, which are great, dark, and dephtless, reflecting the promise, the possibility, of anything. Bentley gives a fine, sometimes heartrending performance as we find out more and more about Ricky, and he can connect with the audience intuitively. The filmmakers don't reveal nearly as much, or as readily, about the Fittses as they do about the Burnhams -- and from what you can tell, you're a little frightened about finding out too much about the Fittses, anyway. (Chris Cooper, incidentally, has turned into an amazing actor: he's just as convincing, here, playing Ricky's father, at turns a black-hearted and piteous character, as he was portraying an immensely compassionate character in Lone Star. But it's going to be Bentley who gets the Supporting-Actor nod at the Academy fish-toss next February.) Ricky and Jane's growing relationship in the film takes on a rapturous quality, and their scenes together -- which are beautifully staged by Mendes, and photographed by the great cinematographer Conrad Hall -- have such a hushed, anticipatory air that they seem above-reproach and chaste.

But this is the story of how the molecules in an atom fly apart only to come, speeding, right back around to crash into each other. On the one hand, the filmmakers throw in some unexpected hooks that confound your expectation, including a closing monologue delivered by Spacey which, combined with a flowing montage, comes close to being ravishing. But something goes terribly wrong with the film's ending. With Lester, Carolyn and Jane, the story is all about how their characters make the leap into some sort of deliverance. Yet, the resolution that's imposed upon the story's conclusion by the filmmakers doesn't seem to fit, and you come away feeling disappointed. Carolyn ends up becomes the woman doomed to fail; the kids become merely uncomprehending, like zombies incapable of feeling; and Lester, whose transformation has been the most exhilarating part of the entire movie, emerges as -- "decent", and, from what we can see, rather boringly "decent", at that.

Could it be that we wanted the characters to go ahead and commit acts that are, in fact, illegal? No: what we want is for them to experience some sort of enjoyment after finally being liberated, and by withholding that, the film ends on a dour note that is not all that far removed from specious moralizing. (And the filmmakers are, obviously, way too intelligent to pull a move like that. Mendes is the guy who staged the recent theatrical productions of Cabaret and The Blue Room.) Or is it that, in how the characters, and the filmmakers, scooch themselves into certain situations, and then suddenly back their way out of them, the filmmakers are showing what is actually a certain lack-of-nerve? In that case, everything that was good beforehand -- and what is good in this film is very good, indeed -- ends up being almost completely toppled over because of, of all things, a last-minute case of the jitters. 

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