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"AMERICAN BEAUTY"
(1999) (Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Black Comedy: A middle-aged man, facing the doldrums of a boring, suburban life, sets out to reinvent himself, no matter anyone's reaction, after his daughter's flirtatious teenage friend reignites his long dormant passion for living.
PLOT:
Lester Burnham (KEVIN SPACEY) is a 42-year-old man whose middle class, suburban doldrums far exceed the standard middle-age crisis. His fourteen-year career at a magazine is going nowhere, his perfectionist realtor wife, Carolyn (ANNETTE BENING), drives him crazy and his angst ridden teenager daughter, Jane (THORA BIRCH) barely communicates with him, simply writing him off as "weird."

Things soon begin to change around the Burnham household, however, upon the arrival of several new people who shake things up. While their neighbors on one side are a gay couple, Jim (SCOTT BAKULA) and Jim (SAM ROBARDS), the once vacant house on the other has now been occupied by the Fitts family. Colonel Frank Fitts (CHRIS COOPER) is a stern, military man whose wife, Barbara (ALLISON JANNEY), seems to be in state of domestic shell shock.

Little do they know that their eighteen-year-old son, Ricky (WES BENTLEY), a boy so obsessed with life and beauty that they once institutionalized him for two years, is actually a successful drug dealer with a penchant for videotaping everything, including Jane next door.

While that initially creeps her out, Jane soon starts to find Ricky interesting once she gets to know him. That only disgusts Jane's gorgeous and fellow cheerleader friend, Angela (MENA SUVARI), who thinks Ricky's a pervert although she herself claims she's slept with men just in an attempt to further her aspiring modeling career.

When Lester meets both Angela and Ricky, he finds a stirring within himself that he long thought dormant and perhaps dead. With Angela, who openly flirts with him, Lester goes into hormonal overdrive and constantly fantasizes about her, when not pumping iron to get into shape and make himself more attractive to her.

With Ricky, Lester finds a kindred spirit whose carefree attitude about life and work -- as well as the expensive pot he sells him -- causes Lester to change his outlook on life. Having successfully blackmailed his former company, Lester sets out to have a good time, not caring that his wife may be seeing local real estate king, Buddy Kane (PETER GALLAGHER).

As everyone reacts to Lester's newfound attitude with shock, he must deal with the fact that Carolyn doesn't like his new self, that Jane half-jokingly asked Ricky to kill him, and that Colonel Fitts becomes suspicious of Lester's involvement with his son.

OUR TAKE: 9 out of 10
With the divorce rate in America reportedly being in the fifty percent or higher range, stories of middle- aged or older men marrying women young enough to be their daughters (and sometimes granddaughters), and the fact that parents are finding it ever harder to communicate with their kids, our society appears to be in a state of familial crisis.

Such stories and/or themes certainly aren't uncommon in the movies either. From Oscar winning pictures such as "Ordinary People" to more recent releases like "Happiness" and "The Ice Storm," the cinema has often recreated such domestic problems, sometimes in quite realistic and occasionally uncomfortable ways.

Thus, many may question if there's really a need for another such movie (as if they're any worse than more cop buddy flicks), and if so, whether any such film could bring anything new to the family strife genre.

We're happy to report that the answer to both questions is a resounding "yes." Like witnessing such domestic blight firsthand, though, this blackened comedy/drama hybrid -- with its unflinching representation of suburban middle-class angst, lust and murder -- may be too unsettling or disturbing for some viewers and certainly isn't appropriate for most kids.

That said, for those who don't mind the more adult material, however, this well-crafted, wonderfully cast and performed film may be one of the best to come along all year. Don't be surprised to see a bevy of award nominations being earmarked for this picture (along with its cast and crew) that proves to be simultaneously harrowing, moving and often outrageously funny, albeit in a very dark way.

Although both director Sam Mendes (who helmed such notable Broadway plays as "Cabaret" and "The Blue Room" with Nicole Kidman) and screenwriter Alan Ball (a TV writer for the show "Cybill") are newcomers to the big screen, their combined effort is nothing short of outstanding and certainly doesn't expose their relative cinematic inexperience.

Perhaps it's due to Mendes -- a Brit -- not being jaded by firsthand knowledge of American familial problems or from Ball putting a unique spin on his own employment strife, but whatever the case, the film has a vibrantly fresh feel about it despite its retreading of a familiar subject.

Fortunately, it also expands beyond what it initially appears it will be and that's yet another "Lolita" type story where a young nymphet seduces a vulnerable and angst-ridden middle-aged, suburban man. Although that's a major element of the overall plot and serves as a catalyst for everything that follows, it's only a part of the complex story the film weaves.

Beyond the stellar writing, tremendous first-time direction, great visual sense courtesy of cinematographer Conrad Hall (an Oscar winner for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," a nominee for "A Civil Action") and a hauntingly effective score by composer Thomas Newman (an Oscar nominee for "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Little Women"), what really makes the film work are the complex characters, the great cast members who embody them and their remarkable, poignant and memorable performances.

While I've always admired the work done by Kevin Spacey ("The Negotiator," "LA Confidential"), his portrayal of a middle-aged suburban male who finally blows a mid-life crisis gasket may be his best yet. It should easily earn him yet another Oscar nomination. While a variety of other actors could have played the role with their own unique spin on the character, Spacey's wide-ranging performance is dead-on and would have been difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to improve on.

As his counterpart, Annette Bening ("In Dreams," "The American President") is good, but clearly is upstaged by Spacey. In addition, she occasionally plays her unhappy wife character a bit too far over the top. Although that nearly leads her down the road toward "caricature-ville," the film's black comedy angle prevents her performance from feeling too much out of place.

Notwithstanding Spacey's brilliant performance, the film's real knockout one comes from relative newcomer, Wes Bentley (a small part in "Beloved"). Playing a young man with a penchant for seeing the beauty in the simplest of things, Bentley's take on his character is nothing short of mesmerizing. Don't be surprised to see this talented young performer also receive his deserved share of award nominations for this performance.

Not to be outdone, both Thora Birch ("Alaska," "Now and Then") and Mena Suvari ("American Pie," "Slums of Beverly Hills") similarly deliver strong performances as the best friends who find themselves drifting apart, while Chris Cooper ("October Sky," "Lone Star") is appropriately unsettling in his performance as the troubled ex-marine father figure.

While the film easily could have been yet another unremarkable, cookie-cutter view of a suburban mid-life crisis, it's so much more that it constantly amazes the viewer as it progresses and unfolds. As the old saying goes about beauty and the eye of the beholder, the film manages to explore what's really beautiful (often things that most wouldn't describe that way) and what's not (such as the "Lolita" character) without being preachy about any of it.

The effect of mixing that symbolism with the underlying domestic crisis story creates a complex plot that always seems perfect, where the next scene flows naturally from everything that preceded it. In fact, the rumor is that after Steven Spielberg snatched up the rights for his Dreamworks studio, very few alterations were made to the brilliant script -- an almost unheard of occurrence in today's world of everyone having to put their fingers into the cinematic pie.

Although it's not the happiest of stories -- we know the fate of the narrator right from the onset, but that only adds yet another layer of intrigue -- and its subject matter and certain elements may be a bit too much for some viewers, this is clearly one of the best films of the year. Featuring many great and clearly Oscar worthy performances, a wonderfully deft directorial touch and a tremendous script, this is the sort of film that will stick with viewers for a long time after seeing it. We give "American Beauty" an 9 out of 10.




Reviewed September 2, 1999 / Posted September 24, 1999


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