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USA 1999
Directed by
Sam Mendes
122 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

American Beauty

Synopsis: Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a copywriting hack for the advertising industry, alienated from his middle-class suburban life, his neurotic real-estate agent wife (Annette Bening), only daughter (Thora Birch) and himself. He quits his job and attempts to reboot his life, upsetting everybody else's in the process.

Certainly the most hyped movie of the year, American Beauty is a marvellously well-constructed film. Its script is by Alan Ball, a television writer and his skill in interweaving multiple plot lines in service of the themes collected under the film's title is unquestionable.

American Beauty is essentially a morality play. We are initiated into this mode at the outset when, much as did William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, (1950) Kevin Spacey introduces himself as the now-dead subject of the story we are about to witness. The distancing nature of the narrated film is often problematic because we effectively know what is to come but Spacey drily delivery so perfectly suits his screen character that we never feel any dissonance,

The characters are types but thanks to Ball's fine writing and the strong performances, not stereotypes, their roles in the unfolding drama clearly delineated and manipulated to realize the moral of the story, articulated in the closing monologue spoken over footage of a plastic bag (Civilization) swirling in the breeze with fallen autumn leaves (Nature) an image which today's preoccupation with climate change lends it a bitterly oracular overtone I assume was unintended

Mendes, a British stage director, brings a welcome understated approach to the material and as a swipe at middle-class materialism and the soul-destroying conformity of suburbia it is effective. One is inclined however ask how  much richer the film might have been if edited differently and the story had been allowed to unfold in an "experiential" way.

Both Spacey and Bening are very good in the leads although while Spacey bagged an Oscar, Bening unfortunately, if rightly, lost to Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry (Mendes won Best Director and the film won Best Picture). Mena Suvari does a fine job as Lester's Lolita. The casting of Peter Gallagher from Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) as the philandering real estate agent is presumably in acknowlegement of that film's similar themes and use of the video camera.

FYI: The Lester Burnham role was offered to Tom Hanks, Jeff Daniels and, rather incongruously, Chevy Chase before it went to Spacey whilst Terry Gilliam turned down the directorial role.




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