Oscar Movie Month: "American Beauty" Review

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Lester Burnham, a depressed suburban father in a mid-life crisis, decides to turn his hectic life around after developing an infatuation for his daughter's attractive friend. Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper and Thora Birch.
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Oscar Movie Month: "American Beauty" Review

-- Rating: R (strong sexuality, violence, language, drug content)
Length: 122 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 1, 1999
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Genre: Drama

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is living the American dream in the suburbs with wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch). He has the house, the cars, the picture-perfect garden, and a job that pays enough for his family to eat like kings every night. On the surface, he seems to have it all, which is exactly what the controlling Carolyn wants everyone in the neighborhood to think. As "American Beauty" wears on, the façade of the perfect suburban life becomes tarnished as the real life of the Burnhams is exposed. It is a masterful dissection of one family's disconnection from each other, even as they display a completely different image while out in public.

The story begins in earnest when Lester sees Angela (Mena Suvari), Jane's friend, for the first time. He immediately has a fantasy about her and can't help but stare when she comes over to the house to spend the night. Jane notices immediately and admonishes her father with words so nasty that the audience might just want to wash her mouth out with soap. It is the perfect example of how little Jane respects her father, a trait she likely learned from her cold fish mother. The lack of respect in every aspect of his life finally comes to a head and Lester up and quits his job one day, much to the chagrin of Carolyn. She sees it as a betrayal of all they built; he sees it as a way to actually begin living again.

He buys a midlife crisis car and begins working at the drive-thru of a hamburger restaurant because it requires no thought or responsibility on his part. It is through this job that he finds out that Carolyn is cheating on him, a revelation that doesn't seem to shock him all that much. He becomes friends with neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley), who makes amateur films when he isn't dealing marijuana to Lester and others in the neighborhood. Ricky's father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) is suspicious of Lester, and makes some surprising decisions that set the final act of the film into motion. A series of misunderstandings leads to the final emotionally wrenching scenes that prove just how fragile and short life really is.

Several movies have taken on the American Dream of a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. Tim Burton gave it a dark comedy twist with "Edward Scissorhands," while "Revolutionary Road" gave a far more dramatic take. Though these are excellent films, "American Beauty" set the standard for movies about suburban life. The script by Alan Ball, best known for HBO shows "True Blood" and "Six Feet Under," peels back all the layers of suburbia like an onion. The resulting exposure is a mix of ennui, repressed angst, boredom, and stunted emotional development that makes for a very powerful film. Ball has managed to create enough depth in all the characters that even the nastier ones, like Bening's Carolyn, are sympathetic. Even Cooper's Colonel Fitts, who ends up doing some very bad things at the end of the film, is someone for whom the audience feels empathy. The ability to write so many characters as heartless on the surface but good people deep in their core is rare, but Ball shows he has that talent in spades.

Spacey will likely forever be known first and foremost for his Oscar-winning turn in "The Usual Suspects." That is fine, since Verbal Kint is the type of character that only comes around once in a lifetime, if the actor is lucky. However, Lester Burnham should and likely will be a close second in any mention of Spacey's greatest performances. He starts off as a sad sack who lets his wife steamroll him, and seems disconnected from his teenage daughter. By the end of the movie, Lester comes out of his cocoon and becomes a beautiful, tragic butterfly. His transformation affects everyone around him, mostly for the better. His cold wife seems to warm up to him a bit more, his daughter realizes that perhaps he is not completely responsible for her affectation. Spacey completely sells the transformation and makes Lester a hero of sorts in the process.

Director Sam Mendes has helmed some emotionally walloping movies like "Road to Perdition" and "Revolutionary Road," but "American Beauty" might just be his masterpiece. In the hands of a lesser director, the fantasy scenes where Lester dreams about his daughter's teenage friend might seem dirty or perverse. Mendes handles them with a deft hand that makes them a seamless part of the narrative, which helps the audience understand where Lester is coming from. All the storylines and moving parts in Ball's fantastic script are brought together by Mendes in a way that packs an emotional punch that it might take the audience days to completely get over. That is the sign of a great movie, one that richly deserved ever award it was given.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars