American Beauty

1999, Movie, R, 118 mins


Black comedy of the deepest, richest darkness laid over an aching meditation on the atrophy of dreams not so much deferred as unformed, unarticulated and lost in the shuffle; this chronicle of suburban families imploding in slow motion contains genuine laughs, but they escape through clenched teeth. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is having a mid-life meltdown. He's about to be fired in a cynical corporate downsizing; his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) holds him in the furious contempt only judgmental teens can work up. Wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) has metamorphosed into a mad housewife, '90s style; realtor, mother, homemaker and student of self-empowerment, she's a perfectly coiffed bundle of crackling nerves. The Burnhams' friends and neighbors include smug rival realtor Buddy King (Peter Gallagher); new kid next door Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who deals drugs and videotapes everything; Ricky's dad, a marine hard-ass (Chris Cooper); and the guppie Jims (Scott Bakula, Sam Robards). And, of course, Jane's seductive, underaged cheerleader pal Angela (Mena Suvari), unwitting embodiment of Lester's longing for the glory days of heedless partying. Not a noble desire, but it spurs Lester to change his life, throwing everyone else's into chaos. Lester's opening voice-over announces that he'll be dead before his next birthday; the what is never in question, but the how keeps you spellbound. First-time screenwriter Alan Ball, whose background includes sitcoms and theater, pulls off his satirical jibes with pitch-perfect aplomb, weaving them into a plot that oozes menace. He's not pining for Pleasantville or blaming the 'burbs for the surfeit of brittle unhappiness, guns and reasons for people to flip out; his subject is the hollowness of lives like American Beauty roses — richly colored, uniform and scentless. First-time movie director Sam Mendes, also a theater veteran, elicits subtle and complex performances from the first-rate cast. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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American Beauty
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