AMERICAN BEAUTY Send This Review to a Friend
It starts with Alan Ball's superb screenplay. It evolves into what is, at least as of mid-September, the best, most mature American film of 1999. "American Beauty," justifiably a hit that created a buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a powerful candidate for an array of Oscars. It also is likely to be a launching pad for a bright movie career for director Sam Mendes, until now known for his inventiveness as a stage director, evidenced primarily by his revival of "Cabaret" in London and New York. With this astonishing screen debut Mendes is sure to have a wide choice of film opportunities.
"American Beauty" is also performance driven in its often funny but deeply upsetting dissection of troubled lives. Kevin Spacey, so good on stage recently in "The Iceman Cometh," is brilliant as Lester Burnham, whose life is in the doldrums. He hates his magazine job which he is in danger of losing. His marriage has become a bore. There is a chasm between him and his teen-age daughter. Spacey is deft at communicating his malaise and resentments while striking back with the bitter sense of humor given to him by Ball's lethal dialogue and defiant actions as Burnham attempts to break out of the mold.
This is a film in which hardly anybody is what he or she seems. Burnham's wife, Carolyn, portrayed by Annette Bening in a smashingly good, wide-ranging performance, her best to date, ostensibly is an upbeat, gung-ho real estate salesperson and social climber. But she has her own void to fill, although she fills it with a smarmy rival real estate salesman ( well acted by Peter Gallagher) rather than with her husband. Credit haunting looking Thora Birch for adding more depth as Jane, the Burnhams' resentful daughter who can't stand either of her parents and has retreated into a world of her own, apart from her friendship with school chum Angela, a knockout who stirs the desire of Jane's restless dad and boasts about her sexual experience. Mena Suvari is perfect at projecting Angela's mix of outer sexuality and inner vulnerability.
The Fitts family that just moved next door to the Burnhams is a powder keg. Ricky Fitts, also in high school, has taken to filming Jane obsessively and is infatuated with the beauty he finds in the various objects he focuses on with his lens. But he is also leading a secret life dealing in drugs. His father, a retired, homophobic U.S. Marine colonel who collects Nazi memorabilia, browbeats him and treats him as if he were in perpetual basic training. Ricky's mother is practically catatonic, presumably from the life she has led under the rigid rule of her militaristic husband. Wes Bentley is both strange and sympathetic in his memorable, affecting performance as Ricky, who finds a soul-mate in Jane, as she does in him. Chris Cooper is disturbingly excellent as Colonel Fitts, himself a walking landmine of emotional explosives. The only apparently happy characters are two gay neighbors, Jim and Jim.
A fatal tone is set at the outset with the narration by Burnham, who confides that he'll be dead within a year. It's risky to have a dead character narrate, but that was done successfully in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" and in Charlie Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux," and it works here, too. How Burnham will die isn't revealed until the end, which gives the film a touch of mystery and suspense. Burnham's final say is a bit of a stretch, but I suppose if one is prepared to accept a dead man's narration, one can accept the rest.
What's so disturbing about "American Beauty" is its wickedly candid peering behind the façade of contemporary family life in one corner of these United States. It's a screen answer to questions that perplex the country every time there is a burst of violence, such as someone shooting up a school, a church or a place of business. The television commentators pontificate with each new tragedy, and everybody seems surprised anew. "American Beauty" tells us that all is not well with families that put up a front to the outside world but are wracked with pain and repressed feelings on the inside. One line of dialogue sums it up: "Never underestimate the power of denial." The fact that the film is frequently amusing doesn't mask the horror.
The compelling drama is beautifully honed into an artistic whole, thanks to the acting, the direction, the screenplay, the sensitive cinematography by Conrad L. Hall, the music by Thomas Newman and other ingredients such as production design and editing. There's excessive symbolic use of roses for my taste, and the final wrap-up is a bit too pat and flowery. But these are quibbles. "American Beauty" towers over most of what comes out of Hollywood these days. A DreamWorks Pictures release.