Retro Film Review: American Beauty (1999)

in #aaalast month


Very few films that win "Oscars" these days can expect to have their reputation last for long. Well-orchestrated publicity campaigns and Hollywood politics are more likely to bring prestigious golden statues to producers than the actual quality of their product. Once the hype is over, any of those films starts the inevitable plunge into oblivion. American Beauty, 1999 drama directed by Sam Mendes, is one of those films.

The script, written by Alan Ball, chronicles the last year in life of Lester Durnham (played by Kevin Spacey), 42-year old man who becomes increasingly unhappy with his life in seemingly idyllic middle-class suburb. He is becoming estranged from his workaholic wife Carolyn (played by Annette Benning) and teenage daughter Jane (played by Thora Birch) who hates her parents. Lester's life begins to change after the chance encounter with Jane's high school friend Angela Hayes (played by Mena Suvari) who will become an object of his lust. Because of that and loss of his job he starts to drastically change his lifestyle - he starts working out and smoking marijuana. Those changes begin to affect Carolyn who seeks comfort in the arms of her business rival Buddy Kane (played by Peter Gallagher). In the meantime, Jane became the object of interest of a new neighbour - Ricky Fitts (played by Wes Bentley), quiet teenager obsessed with video equipment who supports his hobby with drug dealing. His ultra-conservative father (played by Chris Cooper) doesn't have a clue about his son's activities.

American Beauty was a feature film debut for its director Sam Mendes. However, it doesn't show on the screen. Mendes confidently deals with camera and uses every trick on his disposal, especially when showing Lester's lust over Angela - those are the most memorable scenes in the film. The acting is also very good, but this is hardly surprising because of truly talented and highly respected cast. Kevin Spacey has deserved his "Oscar", just as Benning deserved her "Oscar" nomination. Their efforts were matched by those of always dependable Chris Cooper as well as their younger colleagues like Suvari, Birch and Bentley.

Alan Ball's script, despite receiving another of the film's "Oscars", leaves much to be desired though. At the beginning it starts promising - when we are slowly introduced to the characters the film looks like deliciously subversive black comedy that reveals all the hypocrisy, frustration and general unhappiness behind the façade of American suburban utopia. Unfortunately, Ball gradually begins to shift from humour to more serious tone only to end the film with pathetically predictable melodrama. Even bigger problem for the film is lack of characters with whom the audience could identify with – everyone in the film is either hypocritical, psychotic or in some other way dislikeable. The only exception could be found in the character of Lester with whose personal rebellion against the establishment the audience could sympathise, but only until the very end when American Beauty succumbs to 1990s Hollywood conventions of morality.

Despite being seemingly subversive, American Beauty is actually very establishment film, at least if 1990s mainstream Hollywood and its collective mindset could be described as "establishment". The film argues that the source of all unhappiness in America, country which in 1990s looked blissfully unaffected with war and poverty is suppression of individuals' feelings and desires - suppression which is always associated with socially conservative values of Republican Party, whose dominance in Congress was the only black spot on the otherwise perfect image of Clintonian utopia. Ball doesn't show much subtlety in making this point – the least likeable of all characters in the film is revealed to be outspoken follower of Ronald Reagan and closet Nazi at the same time.

As the world changed in the past five years, so did the relevance of American Beauty. It is a watchable film and it will remain one of the shiniest points in many artists' careers, but, just like so many "Oscar" winners, it very unlikely to reach the immortality usually associated with that prestigious golden statue.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on February 16th 2005)

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