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American Beauty   A

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 1999
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Alan Ball
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

In today's highly superficial American society, people all too often feel the need to hide their true personas behind these picture-perfect facades that society will readily accept as "real." But there's often a life behind things that isn't visible from the surface, and that life is often more interesting and real than what we usually see. With American Beauty, director Sam Mendes has crafted a haunting, hilarious, and heartfelt masterpiece that exposes the reality behind two seemingly normal families living next door to each other.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a typical family man who slaves through his nine-to-five at a media-marketing magazine. He has an almost nonexistent relationship with his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch), who seems like any other misunderstood teenager. And though he was once in love with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), a real estate agent bent on success, their relationship has since grown bitter. In the first few minutes of the film Lester tells us, in voice-over narration, "In less than a year from now, I'll be dead." He adds, "In a way, I'm already dead."

Lester has almost given up hope in regaining any sense of joy in life (the highlight for him every day is masturbating in the shower) -- until one day he sees a vision. Watching his daughter's cheerleading squad during half-time at a high school basketball game, Lester spots Angela (Mena Suvari), a delectable blond beauty that entrances him so much that he's never wanted anything more in his life. She's also his daughter's best friend.

This infatuation -- actually a longing for the youth he has long lost -- leads to the funniest, and perhaps saddest, midlife crisis you'll probably ever see on film. Spacey plays the role with perfect comic timing, and he has several moments that had the audience breaking into wild applause and cheers.

Meanwhile, his daughter Jane becomes the object of curiosity for Ricky (Wes Bentley), the boy next door who films everything on videotape -- not because he's a voyeur, but because he's searching for beauty. If you think Ricky is strange, wait till you meet his parents. His dad (Chris Cooper) is a homophobic, abusive ex-marine colonel who makes Ricky take a urine test every six months to make sure he's not doing drugs. Chris Cooper adds heartbreaking depth to this role, and even when he's beating the shit out of his son, you can see how conflicted and tortured a soul his character really is. Ricky's mom (Allison Janney), who doesn't say or do much, is an even sadder story.

American Beauty starts out showing us the surface of things, but it gradually digs deep down into each of its characters to show us who they really are. All of the performances here are amazing. Thora Birch, as Jane, is particularly affecting as a teenager who just wishes that she was as important to her father as her Lolita-like friend Angela. And, of course, Spacey simply rocks (if he doesn't end up getting an Oscar for Best Actor, there is no justice in the world). So does he end up sleeping with his daughter's friend? I wouldn't dream of giving it away.

That American Beauty manages to be one of the funniest movies in years and also one of the most touching and intelligent is a true artistic triumph. Director Sam Mendes (who helmed Broadway's The Blue Room with Nicole Kidman) fills every frame of this movie with a sense of wonderment, beauty, and heartwrenching humanity. Some scenes will have you laughing hysterically (often in shock), while others have the power to move you to tears. Leaving American Beauty, I felt more alive and refreshed than I probably ever have walking out of a movie. This movie literally blew me away, left me inspired, left me thinking. It makes you look more closely at your life, and it makes you not want to waste a single precious second of it.

And, for awhile now, whenever someone talks about "beauty," I'll be thinking of a plastic bag on a quiet winter day, dancing in the wind.

Review published 02.04.2000.

Also read: Kevin Spacey: A Regular Guy.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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