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AMERICAN BEAUTY

Review by Andrew Manning (11/99)

Release: 1999, DreamWorks
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Chris Cooper
Director: Sam Mendes
MPAA Rating: [R] sexuality, violence, language, nudity
Genre: Drama/Comedy


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SUMMARY

A dark comedy that glimpses into the horrific, mundane lives of a suburban family burdened with modern-day existence.

THE SUDDEN RUNDOWN

A little too quirky and out of phase with reality to be a true representation of everyday life, but smartly satirical and morbidly funny, with excellent performances.

WHAT'S GOOD

Kevin Spacey turns in a sharp performance as your everyday Average Joe who's finally fed up with his life. It's not that his life is unusually miserable: it's just painfully monotonous. He's stuck in a loveless marriage to a woman obsessed with materialism, his job doesn't offer him the respect he desires, and his daughter and wife both don't really give a damn about him one way or the other. As the central character, he narrates the opening of the story, and starts it off with a shocker in the first three minutes: he says, "I'm 42 years old and even though I don't know it, in less than a year I'll be dead." The statement, relayed with such simplicity, immediately grabs your attention and sets up some anticipations of what's to come.

What follows is the nightmarishly boring life Spacey's character leads. We watch as his icy wife (Bening) drives around in her Mercedes minivan and closes real estate deals, and we watch as his freaky daughter (Birch) snubs him at every turn. All the while he puts up with this crap, until one day he just decides that it's enough. When he's asked to write a letter describing his job to a corporate consultant (the politically correct way of them asking for a reason why they shouldn't fire him), he retaliates with sarcasm, blackmail, and a resignation, then goes off to actually enjoy life instead of being a slave to it. In one of the funniest scenes of the movie, he goes to apply for a job at Mr. Smiley's (a redressed Carl's Jr.) and demands that they not discriminate against him based on age. (After all, he did have fast food experience twenty years ago.)

Annette Bening is competent as the frigid wife who, despite a cool demeanor, isn't satisfied with her life either. She copes by having an affair with Peter Gallagher, who still has those annoying eyebrows that look like two dirty squirrels crawled up and died on his forehead. What's best about Bening's character is the subtlety of her materialism. She doesn't greedily pursue riches; instead, she obliviously puts her job ahead of her family and personal happiness until she becomes a slave to it. It's that subservience that forms the core misery in American Beauty and is evident throughout.

Thora Birch is believable as a Gen-Y chickie who feels so awkward that she runs into the arms of an artistic pothead played by Wes Bentley. Surprisingly, the pothead, who eventually scores Spacey the primo weed, is more interesting than the wife and daughter combined: an institutionalized reject with a psychotically gung-ho father determined to beat his right wing extremist ideas into his son. And speaking of the ex-colonel father, he's more interesting than the wife, the daughter, and the pothead combined because he's the only character in the entire movie who's really torn apart by contradictions. For someone who is so socially hostile and physically violent, he actually loves his son a lot, and becomes devastated when he learns the son is not what he expected.

And just so that I cover all the bases, the movie also features Mena Suvari as Thora Birch's best friend, a typical cheerleader type obsessed with outward appearance and dreams of becoming a model. Spacey's character has "impure thoughts" about her, but beyond that, her presence doesn't add much to the story. Not only is she shallow and uninteresting, but her motivations are too transparent. She was such a cocktease that it was too obvious she was a virgin. But what-EVER!

Not all of American Beauty is serious drama. The movie is injected with some funny bits. When Bening catches Spacey masturbating in the bed, he bluntly admits, "Okay, I was choking the bishop, so what!" It's those moments when he gains some emotional clarity and stands up for himself that you really applaud the poor guy. Two of the best scenes are when he threatens blackmail, and when he angrily lays down the law for his ungrateful family.

American Beauty is a dark commentary on the drudgery of everyday existence, but it's not a complete downer. Its message is ultimately upbeat, if not the most feel-good movie of the year, and it gives you a little something to contemplate when the story's over.


WHAT'S BAD

The most disappointing part of American Beauty is how the climax is the result of a rather silly misunderstanding. Obviously, I won't give it away here, but let's just say that the mix-up was worthy of an episode of Three's Company. I somehow expected something more complicated and less comical.

The girls played by Birch and Suvari are largely uninteresting. Birch's character is too much like all those other angst ridden teens on the WB to be compelling or original, and Suvari's is a caricature right out of Heathers (or Jawbreaker, if you prefer). And while I'm complaining about them, let me also add that I didn't buy the idea that Birch's character was a cheerleader. She was just way too much of a downer to actually lead a damned cheer. I don't think she cracked a smile once in the whole movie.

Often times, American Beauty narrates its message too explicitly, and in so doing goes too far and gets corny. Remember Spacey's opening monologue that I mentioned at the beginning of this review? It's a great attention getter, but he immediately follows it up with, "But maybe I'm already dead." Jeez, that's a line I expect from a really bad art house flick, and it kills the impact of the words it proceeds. Too bad. Tone it down just a notch and it would have been just right.

I also couldn't get into the notion that beauty is everywhere if you look closely enough. This message, relayed mostly through the pothead, got cliche after a while, and really has no bearing in a world that can offer true despair. If a psycho goes into a school strapped with explosives and blows up a classroom of kids, could you find beauty in the bloody, broken remains? Does the sheer mortality of the situation offer any spiritual awakening, thus offering some sort of theological beauty? I don't see it, but maybe that's just me...


Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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RELATED GOODIES
This film has won the following 1999 Radio Free Movie Awards:

Best Drama
Best Actress, Annette Bening







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