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With: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula
Written by: Alan Ball
Directed by: Sam Mendes
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content
Running Time: 122
Date: 08/09/1999

American Beauty (1999)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Days of Roses

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Broadway director Sam Mendes (Cabaret & The Blue Room) and television writer Alan Ball (Cybill) both make their big screen debut with American Beauty, and they've given us a great movie; dark, intelligent, scandalous, emotional, and truthful -- one of the year's best.

In American Beauty, Kevin Spacey stars as white suburban dad Lester Burnham who lives with his real-estate saleswoman wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and their daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Lester begins lusting after one of Jane's best friends, blonde teen model Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). Mendes and Ball weave an incredible tapestry of suburban hell from this plot and it gets closer to the core than Tod Solondz' Happiness (1998) did. The Burnhams live next door to a gay couple on one side, Jim and Jim (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards), and an ex-Marine Colonel (Chris Cooper) on the other side. The Colonel has a son, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) who videotapes everything, falls in love with Jane Burnham, and makes a ton of money dealing pot. Ricky's mother (Allison Janney) has long ago lost her marbles living in the Colonel's household and she now just sits quietly and says programmed housewife phrases once in a while.

As my mother says, "we never know what goes on behind closed doors." And nothing in American Beauty is as it seems. Like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Lester narrates from the grave. He tells us about the last few weeks of his life in which he decides to blow the cover off his personal hell. He quits his job, blackmails his boss, buys a fast car, gets a job in a fast food joint, and begins smoking weed and working out, all the while continuing to lust after Angela. His new freedom begins to affect his family and his neighbors in peculiar ways. In the end, it doesn't matter which member of this suburbia kills Lester. Freedom like his cannot continue within the existing system.

This movie is truly a collaborative effort by many talents. Besides Mendes and Ball, cinematographer Conrad Hall (The Professionals & In Cold Blood) and composer Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption) give us some of their best work. Spacey's mindblowing performance runs the gamut of human experience and emotion. Bening also gives a great performance in a more difficult role -- a woman who has slowly wriggled her life inside a phony shell cover-story. The rest of the cast is outstanding as well.

American Beauty succeeds on many levels. It gives us a facade, and then carefully peels it back for us. The characters' lives resonate with us so that we can fill in the blanks ourselves. Like The War of the Roses (1989), this movie is darkly funny so that we can laugh along at the rancid underbelly of America lest we succumb. This is a rare movie that assumes we have the intelligence to follow it. It's my Pick of the Flicks this week.

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