American Beauty (VHS, 2000, 2-Tape Set, Awards Edition)

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The Beauty of a Plastic Bag

Oct 23, 1999 (Updated Mar 29, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Kevin Spacey, a riveting script, flawless direction

Cons:Lester's pedophilia

"American Beauty" has two of the best-conceived characters ever to appear in a movie: Lester Burnham and Ricky Fitts.

Lester (Kevin Spacey) is a sad sack American male, trudging through life as a pale imitation of his former self. When he’s introduced at a cocktail party to someone he’s already met, he says, "That’s okay, I wouldn’t remember me either." You see men like Lester every day at the office, in the malls, stuck in traffic jams. You may, in fact, be a Lester Burnham—burned-out on life and dwelling in a twenty-year coma. All it takes is one small jolt to bring you back to life. In Lester’s case, that shake on the shoulder is his daughter’s friend, Angela, a cheerleader who exudes sexuality like a lioness on the prowl. Watching Angela strut her stuff on the gymnasium floor, Lester is transfixed and, in the first of the movie’s many glorious fantasy sequences, he imagines her slowly unbuttoning her sweater while rose petals pour out in a gush. The nubile teenager stirs long-repressed urgings in Lester’s soul and gives him the courage to start calling life as he sees it.

Meanwhile, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) moves in next-door in Lester’s superficially perfect suburban neighborhood. Ricky, the eighteen-old-son of a strict Marine colonel (Chris Cooper), spends his days videotaping Lester’s household--especially Lester’s daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). Newcomer Bentley (he had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in "Beloved") gives a mesmerizing performance as one of the most stable characters in this falling-apart world. At first, he comes off as a modern-day peeping Norman Bates and, indeed, that’s the reputation he’s earned at school, but as Ricky says, he’s not obsessed, just curious. His home library of videotapes captures the beauty in the world—not glowing sunsets, not fields of flowers, but the small things in life we might pass by without a second glance: a dead bird, a man lifting weights in his garage, a plastic bag caught in a whirl of wind.

It is when Ricky shows Jane the footage of the plastic bag that the impact of "American Beauty" really hits home. We, along with Jane, watch nearly a minute of the bag skittering across a sidewalk and we start to laugh at the silliness of Ricky’s obsession/curiosity. But then the camera moves in close on Ricky’s face and we see tears in his eyes. "Sometimes, there’s so much beauty in the world, I can’t take it—like my heart’s going to cave in," he murmurs. At that moment, my heart caved in and I fully succumbed to the pleasures of "American Beauty."

First-time film director Sam Mendes and first-time film scripter Alan Ball have given the American cinema a marvelous gift in their first outing. "American Beauty" is a movie that carries a strong message, exhorting viewers to (as the promotional tagline says) look closer, go beyond the surface materialism of life. When it comes to chronicling the left-over crumbs of a family gone sour, "American Beauty" joins the league of masterpieces like "Ordinary People" and "The Ice Storm." But, unlike those two films, there’s an underlying optimism here. Mendes believes it’s not too late for you, the viewer, to wake from your coma and start looking closer.

Nowhere is that optimism better expressed than in Kevin Spacey’s riveting performance. While I squirmed at Lester’s pedophilia (couldn’t the filmmakers have chosen an older woman for his obsession?), I couldn’t help squirming with joy as I watched a man coming back to life. Spacey has been great before, but here he pulls out all the stops. He completely embodies Lester and will, I think, be forever remembered for this one performance.

But Spacey is not alone in his acting tour-de-force—the entire cast breathes life into their characters. What’s most amazing is that, except for Ricky and Lester, most of the other people in "American Beauty" are at first glance shallow and screeching. As the film goes on, those hysterical performances turn out to be multi-dimensional.

This is especially true for Annette Bening who plays Carolyn, Lester’s wife. A real estate agent with a poor track record, she must constantly chant mantras to herself, "I WILL sell this house, I will SELL this house." She, like Lester, has lost whatever joy life once held. Now, she tries to compensate with manicured lawns, thousand-dollar sofas, and an illicit affair with the town’s top real estate agent. Bening has perhaps one of the toughest roles in "American Beauty," but she pulls it off with gutsiness, sinking her claws into an unlikeable character you can’t help but eventually pity.

Special kudos also go to Allison Janney, who has all of about six lines as Colonel Fitts’ wife. Janney, like her co-star Cooper, has been quietly establishing a great body of supporting performances in recent films like "Private Parts," "Ten Things I Hate About You," and TV’s "The West Wing." Here, she completely transforms herself—you won’t even recognize her as the shell-shocked wife who’s obviously endured years of physical and emotional abuse. "Look closer" and you’ll see a lot beneath the surface of Janney’s reserved character.

There is so much to admire about "American Beauty," that it’s almost impossible to capture it all on paper. Like the rose it’s named for, this film slowly unfolds its petals and blooms into life. One thing’s for sure, after leaving the theater, you’ll never look at a wind-tossed plastic bag the same way again.


Recommend this product? Yes

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