Thursday 17 March 2016

Movie Review: American Beauty (1999)

A story of the middle class American dream lying in emotional tatters, American Beauty is a cynical drama that lifts the lid on all the rot lying just beneath the surface of suburbia.

The film is narrated by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who announces at the start that he will be dead within a year. Lester is a 42 year old media salesperson, stuck in a middle-management job he despises and equally trapped in a loveless marriage to highly-strung real estate agent Carolyn (Annette Bening). Lester is also unable to communicate with his teen-aged daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Feeling emotionally empty, he starts to harbour sexual fantasies about Jane's uppity classmate Angela (Mena Suvari).

New neighbours move in next door in the form of former Marine Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), his depressed wife Barbara (Allison Janney) and unsettled but magnetic son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who sees beauty in all things through his ever present viewfinder. Ricky has a troubled background, an unusual side-business, and exhibits creepy behaviour, obsessively filming Jane, but the two nevertheless start a tentative relationship. Meanwhile Lester snaps out of his funk in a dramatic way, and decides to redesign all aspects of his life. He takes charge of his career, his marriage and his physical fitness, all with unintended consequences.

Directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball, American Beauty is a masterful examination of all that is going wrong under the veneer of suburban family normalcy. Certainly there are a few exaggerations and some pushed-to-the-edges behaviour. But overall the film resonates with all that is familiar but also so rarely talked about in polite circles. An irreverent attitude, sharp dialogue, memorably erratic characters and a subtle Thomas Newman music score build up an atmosphere of mundane surroundings teetering on the edge of a multi-dimensional human catastrophe.

American Beauty tackles a myriad of thorny themes confronting the middle class. The generational divide is represented by Jane and Ricky both being detached and unable to find any comfort communicating with their parents. In Lester's case, it's not for the lack of trying, he's just hopeless at it. In contrast, Colonel Fitts sees the world in military command, control and discipline terms, principles that mean little to youth in the quaint suburbs.

Repressed and unfulfilled sexuality among married adults is on full display as an undercurrent chipping away at stale relationships. Lester and Carolyn have grown far apart to the point that he has much more fun fantasizing about the pouty Angela, while Carolyn goes seeking intimacy with the neighbourhood real estate king, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). There does not seem to be any sex of any kind happening between the Colonel and Mrs. Fitts: she is reduced to a shell of a woman, and he is still fighting the last war with the added complication of some internal demons. The only happy couple in the neighbourhood appear to be gay partners Jim and Jim (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards).

The strongest theme propelling the American Beauty characters towards unintended outcomes is obsession with self-image, self-worth and a misplaced sense of self-doubt. Angela despises the idea of being ordinary, and aspires to stand out with a display of overclocked sexual confidence. Jane is saving all her money for breast enhancement surgery she doesn't need. Lester overhears Angela talking about him in physical terms; he sets about changing his life by buffing up and changing his appearance, triggering Colonel Fitts to arrive at all the wrong conclusion. And Carolyn stimulates herself with vacuous self-help from the pop-psychology school of coaching-by-tape, and not coincidentally falls under the spell of Buddy Kane, who is all about conveying a bronzed image of success, true or not.

Mendes peels away all the layers of familial intricacy with a mixture of drama and comedy, both dancing with a delicious awkwardness propelled by Kevin Spacey's performance. Spacey starts with Lester at the lowest point of despair and climbs gradually out of the abyss towards an unlikely evolution. Finding sources of inspiration in Ricky as an entrepreneur and Angela as a fantasy sex partner, Lester embarks of a devil-may-care makeover of his personal life and his career, with an unanticipated end point. Spacey plays it all with irreverent fatalism and biting humour, allowing Lester to be simultaneously detestable and irresistible.

With red roses and petals permeating many of the scenes to represent coursing passion in the colour of blood, American Beauty progresses in all the directions that can be labelled unpredictable. The American dream is caught in the cul-de-sac of suburbia, spinning relentlessly in a spiral of unmet expectations.

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