Part Ice Storm. Part War of the Roses. But, this description in no way does the film justice.
American Beauty, a dark (and I mean very dark) comedy, which offers a disturbing look into the lives of two dysfunctional suburban families, is an impressive debut for both its director, Sam Mendes and its screenwriter Alan Ball. The film features terrific performances by Kevin Spacey and the under-appreciated Annette Bening. They play Lester and Carolyn Burnham, a baby-boomer couple whose marriage, along with everything else in their lives, has grown seriously stale.
Having been reduced to a hollow version of her former vibrant self, Carolyn is now deeply consumed with appearances – so much so, that her gardening shears have to match the shoes she wears. It comes as no surprise then that Carolyn is easily tempted into an adulterous relationship with her success-exuding business rival, played by a perfectly cast Peter Gallagher.
Not to be outdone in the infidelity department, Lester begins to reinvent himself so that he might have a chance with the beautiful blue-eyed blond teenager, Angela, played by Mena Suvari (who recently played the prudish choir-girl in American Pie). Lester is instantly smitten with this American beauty when introduced to her by his teenaged daughter, Jane, played by Thora Birch. It is great fun to watch Spacey work the metamorphosis of Lester from the lifeless husband and father who seemed to be operating on autopilot into a man who has once again found a passion for life.
Although each of the film’s young actors is solid in his or her role, it is Wes Bentley’s subtle performance as Ricky Fitts, the troubled teen next-door, that is the most compelling. With his brain often clouded by the effects of smoking pot, and the constant hounding he receives from his tyrannical ex-marine dad, played by Chris Cooper, Ricky is seemingly the most troubled character in the story. This is why he is able to so poignantly deliver the film’s central message. Ricky spends his time videotaping what the rest of the world neglects to see, and in doing so is able to find beauty where others can’t or won’t. This uncanny ability enables him to appreciate all that life has to offer (including his abusive father and the relatively “ordinary” Jane).
Ricky, not surprisingly, serves as a catalyst in Lester’s positive transformation. The question remains, however, whether or not Lester’s relationship with his wife and daughter is so far gone that he will be unable to regain the appreciation he once clearly had for his family before it is too late.
As I got up to leave the theater, I noticed that the majority of the audience remained silent in their seats as the final credits rolled by. I wasn’t quite sure whether these people had enjoyed the film or hated it. But, one thing was clear. It had, without a doubt, left them with something to think about.
By: Craig Ettinger
Classic scenes between Spacey and Bening at the dinner table and in the bedroom.
Terrific cinematography and musical score.
If you liked the blond prudish choir girl from American Pie, you get to see more of her in this movie (literally). And, just so she isn’t upstaged, Thora Birch shows the audience a little something extra as well.
Scott Bakula (for all of you Quantum Leap fans) has a small role as the Burnham’s gay neighbor.
Effective use of symbolism – the color red, a funeral procession, and old black & white television (reference to the portrayal of perfect family life in 1950’s T.V. shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet)
An overdone scene in which a partially obscured drug exchange between Ricky and Lester is mistakenly interpreted by Ricky’s homophobic father as something else.
A very cliché scene in which Lester, well on his way to becoming a new man, sings along with the radio blaring the Guess Who’s “American Women” as he zips down the street in his car (it almost felt like I could have been watching a scene out of The First Wives Club).