Sunday, February 27, 2011

943. American Beauty (1999)

Running Time: 122 minutes
Directed By: Sam Mendes
Written By: Alan Ball
Main Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari


This will be the conclusion of our week dedicated to Best Picture winners, as we're a mere hours away from this year's Oscar ceremony. Once again I had the advantage of plucking this one directly from my DVD shelf, but once again, I knew going in that it wasn't a definitive favorite of mine. I've flip flopped back and forth on this one for years. Do I like it or am I not thrilled with it? I knew that this would finally have to be the viewing to answer that question.

The film is set dead square in the center of American suburbia, as writer Alan Ball rips the walls off of those perfect, little, suburban houses to show us what life is really like inside. We zoom in on the Burnham family, headed up by father Lester (Spacey). Lester starts off the film by telling us that within one year he will be dead..."but in a way, he's dead already". He's married to Carolyn (Bening) and their marriage is not going down the tubes, but rather, has been meddling in the tubes for years. Their sex-life is null and void and their daughter Jane (Birch) is there to witness it all. In trying to show support for their daughter, a cheerleader, Lester and Carolyn attend a high school basketball game so that they can see their daughter cheer. During the halftime show, Lester falls head over heels for one of Jane's fellow cheerleaders, Angela (Suvari), which results in the famous erotic dance/rose petal scene. Lester then begins to suffer a mid-life crisis, which comes on even harder when he overhears Angela tell Jane that Lester is cute and if only he had some muscles, she'd "totally fuck him". Lester begins to workout hard, he quits his job after getting a hefty severance package and takes a new job as a burger flipper at Mr. Smiley's fast food restaurant. Meanwhile, the Fitts' have just moved in next door, consisting of Col. Frank Fitts, a homosexual despising, ex-Marine, Barb Fitts, a wife that looks like she's taken one too many tongue lashings from the Colonel and goes around in a zombie-esque state and Ricky Fitts, who takes to selling pot to Lester and filming his object of desire - Jane.


I have mixed feelings on hundreds of movies, but this is definitely one that tops the list. I think every single time I watch "American Beauty" I like it less and less. Years ago, when I saw it, I liked it so much that I ran out and bought it. Lets start with the negatives and work our way to the positives.

The way I see it, this movie can't make up it's mind on whether it wants to be taken seriously or wants to be a satire on the ways of the world as they exist in the suburbs. In one way, it wants to be taken seriously, giving us some beautiful scenes, most notably the end, when Lester realizes the error of his ways and the how he had everything that a man his age could ask for, but simply didn't work hard enough to maintain it. I love Lester's speech at the end of the film and the fact that he dies with a smile on his face, as he stares lovingly at a picture of Jane, Carolyn and himself. But then on the non-serious side we're treated to scenes of Lester working the drive through window at Mr. Smiley's restaurant and catching his wife making out with the "King of Real Estate" Buddy Kane and blackmailing his boss into giving him that hefty severance package that I mentioned above. I understand that it's a dark comedy, but feel that there are too many really touching moments in there to label this movie as any type of comedy. Another element of the film that leads me to criticize this film is that there just doesn't seem to be any type of progressive story. It's basically just Lester going through a mid-life crisis with a bunch of other things thrown in to get a reaction out of the audience.

On the positive side of the spectrum, with "American Beauty" you get some great acting from Spacey and Bening. You get some really touching and really funny scenes, that I outlined above and despite the lack of story, you do get a fairly interesting little tale of life in the suburbs, with some characters that I'm sure will draw your interest. Maybe that was the intention of Alan Ball, writing not so much a story, but rather just an anecdote about the hollow life that exists in the suburbs and the one man who decides he's not going to play Mr. America anymore and conform to that suburban life. It's definitely one that has me flip flopping, but I'd still recommend it and I'd also borrow a line from a fellow blogger of mine and say "approach with caution".

RATING: 6.5/10 That rating seems a bit harsh to even me, but a '7' just seems a little too high, so we'll stick with the 6.5. That'll do it for the "And the Oscar Goes to..." series.


February 27, 2011 7:24pm

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