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american beauty

review by rob gonsalves

Sam Mendes

Alan Ball

Bruce Cohen
Dan Jinks

Conrad L. Hall

Thomas Newman

Tariq Anwar
Chris Greenbury


Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham)
Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham)
Thora Birch (Jane Burnham)
Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts)
Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes)
Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane)
Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts)
Chris Cooper (Colonel Frank Fitts)
Scott Bakula (Jim Olmeyer)

mpaa rating: R
running time: 121m
u.s. release: 9/17/99
video availability: VHS - DVD
official website

other sam mendes films
reviewed on this website:

- jarhead
- road to perdition

Where is the beauty in a discarded plastic bag tossed around in the wind? That's the central image in American Beauty, a forceful and morose drama about a suburban family cracking apart. As it happens, there is considerable beauty in that plastic bag as it swoops and dances; it's also a useful symbolic tool. The movie's hero, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), is himself something of a plastic bag thrown around by fate, unwanted and empty. A magazine writer stuck in a loveless marriage, Lester decides one day to drop out of it all, and suddenly the plastic bag no longer looks empty -- it can be filled, it now has potential.

American Beauty is narrated by Lester from beyond the grave; he's detached and ironic as he tells us about his impending downfall, and nobody is better at this detachment than Kevin Spacey. It fits him perfectly -- he has always seemed like a man who knows something you don't but is keeping it to himself, for his own private amusement. Here, though, he adds an almost Buddhist contentment: being detached from things that don't matter isn't so bad, and Lester's life has not mattered in a very long time. In death, he sees the sad comedy in everything he'd thought so important; the irony is that he dies soon after his new contentment.

Lester's wife Carolyn (Annette Bening in a bravely unsympathetic turn) is a driven careerist, an edgy woman determined to succeed as a real-estate agent. She spends her days prettying up vacant homes and showing them to disinterested clients: she, too, is trying to see the beauty in emptiness. Their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is a typically disaffected teen, mortally embarrassed by her "pathetic" parents; she hangs out with blonde cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari, a talent to watch), a cynical wannabe-model who catches Lester's yearning eye. Lester becomes obsessed with Angela, giving himself over to florid rose-petaled fantasies of her; he devotes himself to working out and getting high with Jane's boyfriend Ricky (Wes Bentley).

There's some satirical flavor in the sight of middle-class baby boomers regressing to adolescence (Carolyn, for her part, has a fling with rival real-estate hotshot Peter Gallagher and develops a gun fetish), but American Beauty is not a satire. Thematically, we've been on this turf before, in the tales of Raymond Carver and in recent films like The Ice Storm and Happiness. Yet the filmmakers -- writer Alan Ball, first-time director Sam Mendes (who comes from the theater) -- don't invite us to sneer at the suffering of their characters. The movie's point isn't that suburban families are miserable under their Brady-bunch facade; we knew that. It's more about wanting to return to a point in life when everything seemed possible, not realizing that everything still is possible if only we loosen our grip on things we can't have, and learn to appreciate the grace of everyday, mundane things.

Sound a little highfalutin? It is, a little. American Beauty sometimes teeters on the edge of adolescent romantic jive, and occasionally falls into it, as when Ricky shows Jane his video footage of that plastic bag and gushes about how all the beauty in the world hurts him. And the whodunit aspect of the climax -- who killed Lester and why? -- feels tacked on, as if the ending were once more ambiguous before the studio imposed a clear-cut resolution. (I've since learned that the film did indeed have a different ending originally.) But really, what Ricky says about the plastic bag doesn't matter, and the identity of Lester's assassin doesn't matter. These are just details, and despite its flaws (and beauty without flaw, as Ricky points out, is just ordinary), American Beauty is a small classic. Like that plastic bag, it's an elusive and allusive work of art that won't be pinned down easily; whether you see it as empty, and what you choose to put into it, is up to you.

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