American Beauty

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Movie Review by Louise Charman

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari
Director: Sam Mendes

Behind the white picket fences and manicured rose beds of suburban America, the rot has well and truly set in. Midlife crises, sterile marriages, weird neighbours – we?ve seen it all before. But the latest addition to the genre – AMERICAN BEAUTY – stands out like a rose amongst thorns.

The film debut of British theatre director Sam Mendes, AMERICAN BEAUTY centres around (and is posthumously narrated by) middle aged adman Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). Trapped in a soulless job and a sexless marriage, Lester?s day starts with jerking off in the shower and goes downhill from there. His materialistic wife Carolyn, beautifully captured by Annette Bening, is obsessed by her real estate business and her carefully constructed image of success, while their teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) despises them both.

The tormented equilibrium of their lives is upset when Lester develops a crush on the beautiful but shallow Angela, his daughter?s best friend (Mena Suvari). Rediscovering his adolescence, Lester quits his job (after blackmailing his boss), gets another at the local burger joint, and starts to work out and smoke pot. His supplier is Ricky (Wes Bentley), the boy next door, whose homophobic ex-Marine father and empty shell of a mother complete the tableau of familial dysfunction.

At first sight Ricky appears to be a voyeuristic weirdo, his drug dealing income furnishing him with a video camera and TV screen through which he spies on Jane and her family. However Ricky is ultimately the least corrupt of them all, his window on the world allowing him an appreciation of the simple beauty of life which the others have lost. He and Jane find refuge with each other, and in one of the most poignant moments of the film, he shows her a video of a plastic bag blowing amongst autumn leaves in a mesmerising dance. ?Sometimes?, he says, ?there?s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can?t take it ? and my heart is going to cave in?. Ultimately Lester gains a similar perspective, but not until he has departed from his newly muscular body.

Mendes, a precocious talent who at 23 was directing Judi Dench in the West End, handles this new medium with consummate skill, aided by Alan Balls? insightful and witty script and an exceptional cast. Lester?s deluded rebellion is hilarious yet touching, and Kevin Spacey adroitly plays him as both hero and weakling. Similarly the efforts of his wife to maintain her crumbling facade of success inspire both our admiration and our pity. Their daughter Jane is the most grounded member of the family, a normal person struggling to survive in a world full of delusions. Her friend Angela, the object of Lester?s fantasy, rates herself on her teen model looks and (fictional) sexual conquests. Lester?s encounters with her and his subsequent flights of erotic fantasy are evoked with a clever combination of visual and auditory devices – rose petals flutter from her open blouse, or brim around her in a luxurious bathtub, while tinkling Oriental music draws him into her seductive embrace. Then just as suddenly we and Lester are back in reality, with his open beer bottle frothing clumsily over his hand.

When fantasy finally becomes reality, in Lester?s own living room, he ultimately becomes what he has so far failed to be: a caring, responsible father figure. And it is in the last minutes of his life that Lester attains true nobility and happiness, his smiling face reflected in a pool of his own blood.

6 out of 6 stars