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American Beauty

Review by Jason Morrison

Kevin Spacey is just the man.

Every time he's in a movie, I gain respect for him. I've liked him ever since The Usual Suspects, but it seemed like he usually played psychos-take Se7en for example. He was great, eerily confident and cold-blooded, but he only showed up near the end of the film to put a head in a box. It's hard for me to relate to.

In American Beauty, however, he plays just an average, boring, half-dead man with a family and a house in the suburbs. Sure, by the end of the movie he rebels, does a few things that lead others to question his sanity, but not a single mass murder.

The film is writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes' look at suburban America. It's also their moviemaking debuts. Now, unless you've been in a bomb shelter since the 1950s, this combination of new filmmakers and suburban theme should tell you one thing-appearances are everything and everyone's secretly unhappy. American Beauty takes this very well known theme and distorts it, giving everything a slightly Kafkaesque twist. Lester Burnham (Spacey) is not just unhappy with his job, he's being evaluated for it by someone who's worked there two months to his fourteen years. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is not just obsessed with looking great, she's a failing real estate developer convinced that if she can stop crying (and feeling), she can sell everything. And on.

Lester and Carolyn keep up their lifeless marriage to keep Carolyn's image together and because Lester simply doesn't have the initiative to change anything. Their daughter, Jane, is a semi-goth cheerleader looking to get plastic surgery (boob job, specifically), and is completely embarrassed by her parents. It only gets worse when Lester begins drooling over her friend Angela (Mena Suvari), staring at her and fantasizing. The girls know full well what he's thinking, and Angela taunts Jane while Lester moves closer to the edge.

Meanwhile the new neighbor boy, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), has begun videotaping them through his window. He's fascinated by Jane, who eventually sees him as more poetic than creepy. Carolyn begins seeing the King of Real Estate, looking for the passion devoid in her marriage, and Lester begins to crack. He says no to his wife. He buys pot from Ricky and begins working out. When forced to justify his existence with a job description, he turns in a report to the efficiency expert which includes his daily masturbation fantasy about escaping to somewhere nicer, say, hell. Luckily, he knows enough about the CEO's taste in prostitutes to blackmail the company and he gets a job flipping burgers.

Ricky is under constant physical threat from his father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) and his mother (Allison Janney) is nearly catatonic. Angela begins to loose grip on her self-esteem-as-a-result-of-popularity, and things just keep getting messier.

So much for plot. The real story is revealed in part by the structure-Lester opens the film as narrator, telling you that he'll be dead soon, though (as we see him) he doesn't know it yet. So there you have it-you know Lester is going to die, but how? The fact of the matter is he's nearly dead already-only later in the movie does he really start to live.

Ricky is key to Lester's evolution, and the bearer of the lesson Lester (and the audience) are to learn by the end of the film. Ricky does not videotape out of voyeurism, though he tapes Lester lifting weights naked and Jane stripping. Though he tapes a dead bird and tells Jane of the time he taped a dead, frozen homeless person, he is not merely morbid. What he sees in all these things is a kind of beauty Lester, Carolyn, Angela, you and I aren't used to seeing. It's hard to put it in one sentence (it took Mendes and Ball and entire movie to have their say), but it has a lot to do with the sheer joy of being alive.

So what is the American Beauty the title speaks of? Don't be fooled into thinking this is merely a jab at the facade of the suburbs-it is, but it's really trying to go deeper than that. Now does it succeed? One thing I liked about the film was that the answer to that question has to be personal. I can see a lot of people not enjoying this film if they don't go beyond the overt theme or don't feel, in some way, like Ricky or Lester near the end.

This is above all a very well written film. Leaving the theater I began noticing symbols and themes I hadn't really thought about while watching, and it deserves a second look before I can talk competently about the rose image, Jane's seemingly miscast place as a cheerleader, etc. The characters, though unrealistically extreme in their attitudes, are quite complexly implemented-Angela, who objectifies herself, is seen as an object of pure beauty and freedom until the very end. The Colonel, harsh and homophobic, sure enough turns out to be repressing homosexual feelings, but it's not as easy as just that.

As complex as it is, it's also quite funny. The satire isn't the source so much as the dialogue-the satire has all been done before, but this movie is very clever in a lot of ways. Lester, explaining the new car in the driveway- "Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I always wanted and now I have it. I rule!" Few people in the theater laughed out loud, but I had to during more than a few scenes.

So will you like this movie? I loved it-funny, great acting, plenty to think about-but if you don't buy into the message, at least a little, you probably will come away wishing you saw American Pie or even Edward Scissorhands.


(Out of five)

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