American Beauty

Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content.

Review by Matt Heffernan
September 24, 1999

The opening shot of Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. shows William Holden's body floating in a pool. Then you hear him begin to narrate the film, which is told in flashback until his character's death. Many films have used this device, but most of them failed because the material wasn't strong enough to warrant a predictable ending. Now a film has come out that not only uses this device successfully, but even stands up to the work of Wilder.

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening play Lester and Carolyn Burnham. Lester writes for a magazine and Carolyn has a lucrative career in real estate. Everything is perfect in their lives except that they have no feelings for each other, and their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), has become completely alienated. Their little repressed world is shaken up when Lester meets Jane's friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), and he is instantly obsessed with her.

Lester changes his whole outlook on life, and decides to become a more desirable person, so that he can seduce Angela. Carolyn is too deep into her career and the happy life she tries to exhibit. She cannot deal with the "new" Lester, and she goes about changing her life. Jane's life also changes when she meets their new neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley) -- a pot-dealing camcorder voyeur. But, we know at the very beginning that Lester is not going to survive this film. This new situation is definitely not "normal" by the standards of society, and somehow Lester is going to take the fall.

American Beauty tells this story with remarkable ease. Spacey has the ability to make the audience see his character, not some developed screen persona. His performance is what makes this film so great, and I would not be surprised if he got himself another Oscar next year. Of course, I couldn't discount the talent of Sam Mendes, who makes his directorial debut in film. He has had great success as a director on the stage, including the current revival of Cabaret. Film directing is quite different from the theatre, but Mendes has a natural gift for it. He creates some interesting contrasts between the look of the pristine suburban neighborhood, with all the houses and trees in perfect order, and the liberation of Lester's spirit, which is symbolized by showers of rose petals, falling in a sensually random manner.

Suvari, who was in the surprise hit American Pie (which will hopefully not get confused with this film), is excellent as the benchmark of normalcy and perfection. She shows that she can play not only an innocent choir girl, but also a flirtatious Lolita. Birch and Bentley also prove to be promising talents. Most surprising was Bening, who has turned in one of her best performances.

DreamWorks, in its short existence, has now produced two great films: Saving Private Ryan and this one. I couldn't imagine any of the older studios producing films like these today. They probably wouldn't make Sunset Blvd. if it were pitched today, either.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
American Beauty (1999)

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American Beauty (1999) -- VHS
American Beauty (1999) -- DVD
American Beauty: The Shooting Script, by Alan Ball -- Paperback
American Beauty: Music From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack -- Compact Disc
American Beauty, Grateful Dead (Why not?) -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan