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USA 1999
Directed by
Sam Mendes
122 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 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 (tThora Birch) and himself. He quits his job and attempt to reboot his life, upsetting everybody else's in the process.

Certainly the most hyped movie of the year, American Beauty is a well-constructed film but cinematically inflated beyond its true measure, which is, the small screen (I saw this in Cinemax, with a super wide screen and sound to match). Its script is by Alan Ball, a television writer and his skill in interweaving plot lines is unquestionable, however as with much American teledrama, the concentration is on issue-based narrative with little else of interest.

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 Lester Burnham 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 with in this case the Lester character making things happen to bring this about rather than having things happen to him. This film should have been an experience, instead it is an observation. The characters are types, their roles clearly delineated, and like chess pieces, manipulated from above by the scriptwriter to realize a goal rather than interacting of their own volition. The goal is not so much the narrative resolution, which we have from the outset, but the moral of the story, unfortunately articulated in the heavy handed and strangely self-righteous closing monologue (as the film emanates from Spielberg's Dreamworks studio, this doesn't really come as a surprise). One must ask how much richer this film might have been if edited differently and the story had been allowed to unfold in an "experiential" way.

Having said that, 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. In this respect it is as a comedy that it works best, the humour being probably its single strongest feature although it is of the safe variety. As a drama it is far less successful and here the much-touted genre-crunching works against it, the feel-good aspect undermining the attempt to expose the real suffering behind the mask of appearances which the film insistently points to but never manages to embody. 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). 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, although unlike it, but like so many other elements here, the video camera is instrumental, rather than integral, to the deconstruction of social pretences.

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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