Volume 93, Issue 21

Tuesday, October 5, 1999


Modern day triumph

No Mystery to movie's melodramatic success

Rezervation Road a riveting trip

Cockburn and Misfits come up big

Modern day triumph

Photo by Lorey Sebastian
GLAD SHE DIDN'T CATCH ME PLAYING WITH MY OTHER JOYSTICK. Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey round out an all-star cast in the cinematic tour de force American Beauty.

American Beauty
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening
Directed By: Sam Mendes

By Jared Gutstadt
Gazette Writer

Quite often, films are hyped to such an extent that they don't live up to their expectations – fortunately, this is not one of those times.

Reminiscent of the personal films of the late '70s and borrowing from the creative techniques of Robert Altman, Francis Coppola and Martin Scorcese, American Beauty is a movie which has to be seen to be believed.

In addition to its engaging plot and thematic tone, the movie is a character study which encourages the viewer to interpret the film as a piece of art. Director Sam Mendes has spent most of his career directing plays on and off Broadway and it shows. Mendes' directorial debut manages to merge many elements of stage and screen in a cohesive manner.

Rich in cultural and artistic content, American Beauty takes an analytical look at the American dream. Writer Alan Ball, of TV's Cybil, examines the lives of a family which could easily be a composite sketch of any North American suburbanite.

Centred around Lester Burhman and his post-modern family, consisting of wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch), the film's premise is aptly summed up by its recurring catch phrase – "look closer."

The movie opens with Lester's own bleak observations about his cocoon-like existence. A typical American male with a wife, a kid, a mundane job and a penchant for Budweiser, Lester realizes at the end of the year he will be dead and in some ways, he finds he already is.

When a chance encounter with one of his daughter's friends, played by Mina Suvari (American Pie) brings him to the conclusion he is wasting his life, Lester begins exploring parts of his psyche that have been dead since the '70s. He starts smoking pot, listening to Pink Floyd and working out. This sparks the underlying theme of the film, which is essentially a story about Lester's spiritual re-awakening.

The characters in American Beauty are all deeply layered. Bening is stunning as Carolyn, an overbearing mother who shows signs of obsessive compulsiveness. One of the most brilliant scenes in the film has Carolyn refusing to make love to Lester because she is afraid it will mess up the couch.

Another standout performance is provided by Wes Bently, who plays Ricky Fitts – the son of a deranged ex-army colonel who has serious psychological problems as a result of years of abuse from his father. Other notable performances in the film are contributed by Scott Bakula and Sam Robards who play Jim #1 and Jim #2, the Burhman's homosexual neighbours.

American Beauty is a film that re-opens the dialogue on the concept of the American dream. Ball makes the viewer wonder if American society has failed the baby boomers by raising philosophical and moral questions. Should a civilized society follow a strict moral code? Should a husband leave his wife after twenty years of marriage for a younger woman if he so feels? The oblique way in which these questions are answered all contribute to the overall greatness of the film.

In short, American Beauty is a cinematic masterpiece well worth seeing.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999