Lester Burnham - Kevin Spacey
Carolyn Burnham - Annette Bening
Jane Burnham - Thora Birch
Ricky Fitts - Wes Bentley
Angela Hayes - Mena Suvari
Colonel Fitts - Chris Cooper
Buddy Kane - Peter Gallagher
Director: Sam Mendes
Previews: End of Days, Anywhere But Here, Sleepy Hollow
If I had to use one word to describe my experience, before, during, and even after viewing American Beauty, it would be, off-guard. First off, I was not expecting this movie to be released here until October 1st. Since I am not in a major metropolis, top 50, but not Top 10, I figured it would go to all of the other cities first, then come to us, along with the rest of the country. Alas, the commercial, and financial success afforded the studio to push up its release date by a week. Hence, I was caught off-guard when I found that in fact this movie, which I had been anticipating, and awaiting, was now playing "at a theater near me." So, armed with my friend, a cinematic skeptic, who usually doesnt like movies that dont have light saber battles or thought provoking religious undertones, and his wife, who was basically dragging him into this, I headed out, and into another world, the world of American Beauty.
The tagline for this movie, was "Look Closer", but another one, a Spacey film as well, and one of my favorites, produced another applicable premise, things are not always as they appear. We are introduced, upon voice over, to life on Robin Hood Trail, in an unnamed, and unimportant, city, but definitely in suburban America. There are white picket fences, two car garages, flower gardens, neighbors who bring gifts to new neighbors, basically, at a glance, a peaceful happy world. However, if you indeed, look closer, as this movie does, you will see that underneath the layers, all is not well, in suburbia.
The movie Hero, a guilty pleasure, includes a speech by Geena Davis about peeling back layers of an onion, in order to find what is really there. American Beauty takes this premise a step further, by showing us, slowly, what happens when those layers become exposed, and their effects on the people involved. Lester Burnham, a self professed "gigantic loser" , his wife Carolyn, and daughter Jane have a perfect home, filled with the sounds of Lawrence Welk, expensive furniture, and nightly dinners at the kitchen table. However from its early moments, the layers begin to come off, and the image of contentment, is quickly shattered. I really cannot get into anything more involving the plot, because it would ruin the magic and power that the unveiling holds. Suffice to say, as my friend turned to me and said, you think you know what is going to happen, and regardless of if you are right or not, theres no way you could foresee the route it's going to take to get there.
American Beauty succeeds, where Happiness failed miserably in my eyes. It takes a look into a world that Ive stated exists out there. It is the world, just this side of reality, in the shadows and darkness, that we are afraid to admit is there, but that we know really is, and are scared that it does. It is full of brutal honesty, with lines that sting when you hear them, and situations, however realistic, that will make you squirm, and even shiver in your seat, as I did several times. It will make you laugh, nervously at times, because of the humor, but more because you can relate to realism of the situations shown. It deals candidly, with mid-life crisis, obsession, homophobia, insecurity, possessiveness, and ultimately, the fear and repurcussions of just letting go. The wonderfully plotted screenplay, combined with some effective imagery, and 70s' style music, create the emotion, and effect, that you are indeed, as newcomer Wes Bentleys character states, watching Americas Weirdest Home Videos. The transformations, and results are shocking, and scary, in both their realism, and intensity.
The performances here are all first rate, and top of the line, if not a bit shocking as well. If I had to pick out of all of them, Id single out Spacey, because hes a favorite of mine, and doesnt disappoint here, ranging emotions with a natural ease. Bentley is a newcomer, who won out over several of Hollywoods hot young actors, I heard, to get this role. He bears a striking resemblance, both in looks, and acting style, to the wonderful Joaquin Phoenix. It is worth seeing, for no other reason, than for their performances, as well as those of Bening, Birch, Suvari, and even a smarmy Peter Gallagher.
It is not without it's faults though. I feel that a bit too much is shown, or told, and thus some of the shock and emotional intensity is deflated a bit. My suggestion; stay mysterious, lure us in, then hit us. The intensity and power of the film's message could've been driven home even harder, with a tad more focus, and less tipping of their hand a bit too early. Also some of it's execution seems straight out of a sitcom, in creating the image of something that it's really not based upon the perspective that it is viewed from. However two or three other scenes that really nearly knocked me out of my seat, from the aspect that the director could and did do them.
Ultimately, this is a multi-layered masterpiece, and definitely among the years best movies. I once again appeal to the sometimes short-sighted Oscar voters, remember and reward Spacey, the supporting, the cinematographers and the screenwriters for their award worthy effort. The faults are forgivable, when you look at it as whole, and from an entertaining, and intuitive perspective. Just when you think you know where its going, and what is going to happen, as my friend was at every turn, director Mendes takes a sharp turn, and blindsides you for thinking that way. When you see it, what is going to happen may seem as blatantly hard to miss as a 60-foot Bart Simpson coming down Wall Street in the Macys parade, but you really will not be prepared for what will happen when you "Look Closer, as I recommend you do, as soon as possible. When this movie was over, my friend turned to me, skepticism gone, and said "This one better get four stars in your review," and even though we have disagreed wildly in the past (Phantom Menace, 12 Monkeys), who am I to disagree this time. ($$$$ out of $$$$)
Actor and movie information courtesy of theImages courtesy of Dreamworks