American Beauty (1999)
When a film is able to combine taking
itself seriously and attaining an ironic distance to its subject; when it manages
to be both dramatically valid and powerful as well as humorous, then it
may be on course for greatness.
American Beauty is that kind of
American Beauty is that kind of film.
The starting point for screenwriter Alan Ball is a dissection of modern suburbian life, a philosophical look at themes that have been frequently discussed on film in later years: the meaning of life, honesty, openness, midlife crises, and – of course – lust. A mush dabble around these themes often results in a trivial movie, but in American Beauty it is all handled elegantly, and the film is anything but trivial. As directed by first-timer Sam Mendes, this is a character study with such remarkable rhythm and precision that it attains an almost poetic quality. And that's not because of the most obvious segments, such as the plastic bag shot, but rather how the film brings our deepest secrets to the forefront before rendering them harmless. Yes, we may lust for our teen-age daughters' friends. Yes, we may be closet homosexuals acting as homophobes. And yes, we may be desperately hung up on keeping up appearances. But know this: It doesn't matter, because everybody does.
Just like Forrest Gump five years ago, American Beauty is both an homage to and a satire of everything arch-American. The result is simple entertainment with artistic depth. Mendes' aforementioned direction is arguably the film's greatest asset. As far as directorial debuts go, this is up there along with the very best in the business. It's hard to imagine Mendes being anything other than a unique talent.
Still, the be all and end all for a dramatic comedy is its characters, and our ability to see ourselves in them. In American Beauty there's not only a wide array of them, but we're also absolutely spoiled with brilliant performances. Kevin Spacey has had a great decade, from his mini-breakthrough in Glengarry Glen Ross in 1992, and to his commercial breakthrough in films such as Seven and The Usual Suspects. Here he finally gets his big break as a leading man, a responsibility a lot of people ostensibly doubted whether he could carry. The fact is, however, that Spacey rises to the occasion. He's also the kind of actor who looks better middle-aged than he did as a young adult, meaning that we'll probably see a lot more of this guy in the coming years.
Spacey is also surrounded by pleasant and impressive supporting performances. Annette Bening (the gal who crushed a lot of women's hopes when she married Hollywood's most eligible bachelor Warren Beatty in 1992) delivers a wonderfully manic part, while the trio of kids, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley and Mena Suvari, all give very credible performances. Birch, a former child actress who was great opposite Elijah Wood in Paradise (1991), is having an exciting future ahead of her. Most impressive, however, is John Sayles regular Chris Cooper, who delves deep in a challenging part.
American Beauty may well become a modern classic. It is simple in its own quirky way, but it's exactly the simplicity which makes it so universal and timeless, and which transforms its concise observations on life into a pensive and poignant classic tragedy.
Copyright © 2.2.2000 Fredrik