American Beauty (VHS, 2000, 2-Tape Set, Awards Edition)
611 consumer reviews
Average Product Rating:
Jun 23, 2000
Review by scott29
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Smart script and brilliant actors.
Cons:You tell me.
A fascinating look at one family and how disillusionment can be the worst tragedy of all. Funny, sad, honest and entertaining. Well acted throughout and directed with a stark and delicate touch. An all-around great movie.
Recommend this product?
What happens when a family achieves The American Dream, and slowly begin to realize not only is it not dream-like, but that it is, in fact, a quick road to anonymity? Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) slowly begins to realize that even in his own house, in his perfect suburban neighborhood, he is a prisoner. This revelation fully surfaces while watching teenage cheerleader Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) shake her pom-poms at a basketball halftime show.
It’s as if his potentially immoral thoughts free him the shackles of his daily grind. He sheds his inhibitions by taking up jogging, exercising, pot smoking, and other habits his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) finds frightening. His alienated teenage daughter (Thora Birch) becomes contemptuous of her fathers’ new behavior because, hey, normal parents are weird enough, right? What happens if your Dad starts acting like an irresponsible teenager himself? That’s the “surface plot”, of course.
At risk of sounding simplistic, this is a brilliant movie. Its voyeuristic approach, the intimacy we are seemingly spying on, is simply too appealing to resist. We go inside a family, like a fly on the wall, and get to see all the ugliness that ‘loving families’ often show. Anger, pettiness, and scathing sarcasm are often on open display at this dinner table.
Many scenes reminded me in some ways of nasty arguments had during my childhood. This does not mean, however, that it’s a depressing or downbeat film. Real families are ugly sometimes, and sometimes they’re pretty funny.
Housewife Carolyn, to the casual observer, is your typical housewife/real-estate agent. She always looks great and is the picture of politeness, but (to borrow from the tag line) look closer. This woman is driven by an inner obsession to succeed, and when she doesn’t, the mask is still intact. Annette Bening gives a solid performance for a change. (She’s been on autopliot since The Grifters.) Although her more intense scenes are a little overdone, she fills the character more as the film moves on.
As daughter Jane, Thora Birch gives a restrained and very strong performance in a tough role. The ‘bitter teenage girl’ role has been done a lot recently, yet she brings some real heart. You never despise the glum and unhappy Jane, because it’s clear to see why she’s unhappy. She’s becoming a real human, while her parents seemingly become even more alien to her.
Of course, the obvious standout in this picture is Kevin Spacey. Any movie fan worth his popcorn can tell you that he’s one of the most entertaining actors in films today, but here he really scores big. (He will take home an Oscar. Book it.) His Lester starts as a corporate suit, adding nothing important to the world (or himself) and is hardly ever noticed. He realizes that although he’s living The American Dream, he is indeed a loser.
Once he blackmails his bosses and takes up his new, youthful lifestyle, he recaptures a love for life. Without that, after all, what is a job but extra baggage? He steals every scene he’s in, and he has had some phenomenal dialogue written for him. As he begins to enjoy his new life, he quietly proclaims “I rule,” and if that scene doesn’t touch you in some way, too bad for you.
If this movie were just average, Spacey’s performance alone would easily be enough to recommend it. Fortunately, this is not an average movie. As new next-door neighbors, Chris Cooper and Wes Bentley play a dysfunctional father and son with problems of their own. Dad goes by “Colonel” and demands a urine sample from his son regularly. Ricky is a quiet, troubled teenager who has a knack for seeing beauty in all things, and he also sells pot on the side. Chris Cooper never goes overboard with a potentially overused character, and Wes Bentley gives a sad, intense performance.
The antagonist of all this change is Jane’s teenage friend Angela. Lester becomes nearly obsessed with her, fantasizing in his bed and even calling her on the phone, only to quickly hang up when she answers. As the “American Beauty” is characterized more fully, however, Lester sees what we all should have known by now: It’s not real. The ideal he has set proves to be not all that great after all, which is also true for his whole life in general.
While American Beauty does expose a lot, and some of it quite ugly, it’s difficult to dislike. It’s about all of us, and if what we all consider important really has any value at all. It’s brilliance lies in its familiarity, its normalcy. The tragedies and tirades we all deal with are right here, and maybe after seeing it, we should perhaps try to find a new source of happiness and success. If we could only figure out what that is.
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