Film: American Beauty

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Film:

American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes
Honors:
Genres:
Distributor: Dreamworks Video

From its first gliding aerial shot of a generic suburban street, American Beauty moves with a mesmerizing confidence and acuity epitomized by Kevin Spacey’s calm narration. Spacey is Lester Burnham, a harried Everyman whose midlife awakening is the spine of the story, and his very first lines hook us with their teasing fatalism—like Sunset Boulevard’s Joe Gillis, Burnham tells us his story from beyond the grave.

It’s an audacious start for a film that justifies that audacity. Weaving social satire, domestic tragedy, and whodunit into a single…

Reviews

Amazon.com

From its first gliding aerial shot of a generic suburban street, American Beauty moves with a mesmerizing confidence and acuity epitomized by Kevin Spacey’s calm narration. Spacey is Lester Burnham, a harried Everyman whose midlife awakening is the spine of the story, and his very first lines hook us with their teasing fatalism—like Sunset Boulevard’s Joe Gillis, Burnham tells us his story from beyond the grave.

It’s an audacious start for a film that justifies that audacity. Weaving social satire, domestic tragedy, and whodunit into a single package, Alan Ball’s first theatrical script dares to blur generic lines and keep us off balance, winking seamlessly from dark, scabrous comedy to deeply moving drama. The Burnham family joins the cinematic short list of great dysfunctional American families, as Lester is pitted against his manic, materialistic realtor wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening, making the most of a mostly unsympathetic role) and his sullen, contemptuous teenaged daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, utterly convincing in her edgy balance of self-absorption and wistful longing). Into their lives come two catalytic outsiders. A young cheerleader (Mena Suvari) jolts Lester into a sexual epiphany that blooms into a second adolescence. And an eerily calm young neighbor (Wes Bentley) transforms both Lester and Jane with his canny influence.

Credit another big-screen newcomer, English theatrical director Sam Mendes, with expertly juggling these potentially disjunctive elements into a superb ensemble piece that achieves a stylized pace without lapsing into transparent self-indulgence. Mendes has shrewdly insured his success with a solid crew of stage veterans, yet he’s also made an inspired discovery in Bentley, whose Ricky Fitts becomes a fulcrum for both plot and theme. Cinematographer Conrad Hall’s sumptuous visual design further elevates the film, infusing the beige interiors of the Burnhams’ lives with vivid bursts of deep crimson, the color of roses—and of blood. —Sam Sutherland

Barnes and Noble

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle-aged, middle-American everyman, is in midlife burnout. When he lusts for his daughter’s seductive friend, he plunges into a regression that changes his life. Sam Mendes’s sardonic look at the dysfunctional underside of suburban bliss, American Beauty, tore through the Academy Awards in 2000, winning five trophies, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. In a standout cast that includes Annette Bening and Chris Cooper, Spacey is especially moving: Normally an intelligent but distant actor, his Lester is in dead earnest as he whips himself up into a new man while his marriage crumbles. Bening brings sympathy to her role as Lester’s tightly wound wife, a struggling realtor. Exhibiting a startling amount of directorial acumen for a debut feature, Mendes—a theatre veteran—gives us a fresh, suspenseful, and entertaining take on an old subject: suburban ennui And while elements of the tale here may echo movies as disparate as Blue Velvet and Heathers, the expressionististic cinematography, beguiling score, and unblinking script add to the rare level of excellence and charm. The DVD includes commentary from Mendes and writer Alan Ball and American Beauty: Look Closer, a making-of documentary short. Monica McIntyre

Related Works

Album:American Beauty: Music from the Motion Picture

American Beauty: Music from the Motion Picture

Thomas Newman, Various Artists

What’s the soundtrack for suburbia gone awry? Perhaps it’s American Beauty—the music for the dark Sam Mendes-directed flick starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. With its mix of classic and indie rock, the disc seems to reflect something for everyone (or at least those found in middle America). Bobby Darin’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is the epitome of unhip, Free’s “All Right Now” is a classic rock anthem we’ve heard way too many times, and Peggy Lee’s “Bali Ha’i” is vintage exotica at its best. But then there are some surprises: Elliott Smith’s…

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