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American Beauty
A movie review

American Beauty poster

Kevin Spacey and Annette bening

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening
Lester and Caroline Burnham

Thora Birch

Throa Birch
Janie Burnham

Wes Bentley

Wes Bentley
Ricky Fitts

Mena Suvari

Mena Suvari

American Beauty

Director : Sam Mendes

Principal cast

Kevin Spacey
Annette Bening
Thora Birch
Wes Bentley
Mena Suvari
Peter Gallagher
Allison Janney
Chris Cooper

Photos : Courtesy of Dreamworks SKG

By Jesse Gale

NEW YORK, 19 November 1999 - American Beauty may seem like one more flick goofing on the suburbs. And it does include plenty of guffaws at the suburban family's expense: it exposes the drunkenness, the furtive masturbation, the passion for lagoon pools and striped sofas. It snickers at suburban worship of youth, too - like any television on a Tuesday night, Beauty's camera sneaks into the schoolyard like a pervert, pathetically drooling over dewy skin and inane conversation. But along with these snorts, American Beauty records what's precious in the suburbs. It's a movie that describes - in terms both tender and resentful --the beauty of childhood.

The film opens with a camcorder vision of Janie Burnham (Thora Birch) lambasting her drippy father Lester (Kevin Spacey). "How could he not be damaging me?" she asks her interviewer-cum-boyfriend, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). "I mean, I too need structure. A little fucking discipline." Janie's soft, child's face and soft, woman's body pose other questions, too - and as if in response, the film's story begins.

The camera tracks into a protected, tree-lined street while Lester explains himself from beyond the grave. He pokes fun at his dumb life: his martinet wife Caroline (Annette Bening), his scornful teen Janie, and their dandy neighbors Jim and Jim. Everyone is bright, aerobically-enhanced: when one Jim asks Caroline how she gets those red, red roses to look so healthy, she beams back: "eggshells and Miracle Grow!" Lester's having trouble at the office, though. A thirty-ish VP rides Lester's ass like a Big Wheel, and Lester could lose everything. Caroline, meanwhile, has split herself in two trying to hock hovels as fast as Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), the "Rolls-Royce of local real estate."

And Janie's glum. In an effort to cheer her, Lester and Caroline squish into the highschool gym to watch Janie cheerlead in a bowler hat and bitty skirt, shaking her sullen money-maker to the tune of "On Broadway." But for Lester the tune changes. Suddenly he's drawn into the concentrated gaze of Angela, head cheerleader, whose bowler tips wantonly for Lester alone. In his tingling fantasies, she arches her neck, opening her acrylllic zip-top to loose the rose petals that Caroline had so tightly restrained. The lawless beauty of the petals won't let Lester be. He embarrasses himself and his daughter by shifting into teen mode, desperately running to regain some of the abandoned sexiness of his youth. Shamed, Janie scurries into the frame of Ricky's camcorder where the two debate the value of discipline for children. Meanwhile, Ricky's father (Chris Cooper) rules his boy like a Führer, forcing Ricky to split himself in two. Every relationship intensifies to an unbearable heat, until the final moments reassert Lester's tempered narrative tones.

American Beauty is, overtly, a film that considers how much discipline is required to produce the glory of roses, of children, of film. Should families reign in all divergent behavior, pushing good kids like Ricky to the point of murder? Which rose is more gorgeous, the silky-damp petals that fall through Lester's fantasies, or the firmly-budded clusters that Caroline stocks? Can one record the "benevolent force behind life" with a video-cam? How much discipline do these delicate projects require?

For director Sam Mendes (The Blue Room), what's required to create beauty seems to be, metaphorically, a version of "eggshells and Miracle Grow."

In this film, roses and children thrive on broken shells and busted boundaries, but they also need a benevolent order behind things - a miracle they can grow in. Children need to burst from the tightest of their families' protective shells, but they also need "a little fucking discipline" - some base of security from which they can ply their minor crimes. And maybe filmmaking - like Ricky's mini-vids or American Beauty itself - similarly requires transgression within a frame.

Instead of mocking suburban enclaves, the film acts as apologist for the principle of containment.

Scriptwriter Alan Ball has provided dialogue and counterpoint that thread through these issues simply and surely. Director Mendes has found visual symbols that simplify his difficult questions.

The performers each find unanticipated depths in suburban icons: Spacey's Lester is surprisingly warm and thoughtful beneath his midlife crisis; Annette Bening finds the frightened girl inside Caroline's bitchy squalling; and Birch and Bentley are particularly intriguing as teens nurturing their inner adults. In a truly standout performance in a minor role, Allison Janney sketches Ricky's mother, a wife ossified by her husband's strict demands.

Throughout, the film shows us more than we expected, and shows us - more importantly - how to find more beauty than we expect outside the theater. By seeing life inside a frame, Mendez suggests, we are better able to recognize what's precious.

American Beauty, though it seems another hokey cut-up of suburban types, invites us to look at life within its frame; it invites us to see the miracle of beauty, and the fragile walls that let it grow.

Read the rest of Culturekiosque's Oscar coverage--
reviews of the other Best Picture nominees
and our Oscar Night commentary.

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