I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

American Beauty

To be frankly honest I almost left off the review of sam mendes American beauty because it was not really my personality in my opinion. Although i worked very hard on it I also had a dude edit spelling errors, grammar etc. for me and looking back it is really not me, it is really not VERN. Too slick, mainstream and hollywood in my opinion. I had been gone from the newsgroup after an incident of hurting a man’s feelings and going in search of myself. I wanted to show that I had really improved as a Writer however this was not very honest to have another man’s help. So please don’t read this review in my opinion thanks.

AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Alan Ball

AMERICAN BEAUTY deals with the ugly sins and denial carefully buried beneath the manicured green lawns of a typical suburban neighborhood. A failed marriage, a daughter’s distrust of her parents, a father’s crush on her daughter’s underaged friend. The new neighbor (Chris Cooper) beats his pot dealing voyeurist son and ignores his emotionally disfigured wife. A failing real estate agent played by Annette Bening philosophizes about projecting an image of total success, but an emotional breakdown leads to her husband Lester (Kevin Spacey) quitting his job, taking up pot and systematically tearing down the perfect image of suburban happiness that his wife has so carefully constructed. Soon all hell breaks loose and a nasty splooge of anger and violence surfaces from beneath the façade. This sort of subject matter has been tackled many times before – we’re not exactly blowing the lid off of suburbia here – but it’s well executed and draws you in almost immediately.

American BeautyI think what really makes it work is its three dimensional set of characters. A crucial scene in the film is when Bening strips down to her skivvies and begins scrubbing and vacuuming a small, rundown house, chanting “I will sell this house TODAY.” She tries her damndest, pathetically bullshitting a series of unimpressed clients, trying to pass off a kitchen that would fit neatly into a jail cell as “any chef’s dream,” and suggesting to a young couple that they might think of adding a skylight. She projects a ridiculous, cartoonish optimism like a demented Avon lady, but no one’s buying it. Especially the lesbians who note that the filthy swimming pool isn’t exactly “lagoon-like” as described in the ad, and call her on it.

It’s a funny scene, and Bening’s shit eating saleswoman face is representative of her entire lifestyle. But the important moment comes when Bening, having failed to achieve her goal of selling the house in one day, carefully pulls the vertical blinds closed and bursts into tears. Suddenly the real tragic human comes tearing out of its cartoon shell. Instantly you can feel her pain and root for her to pull her life together. (Fat chance.)

These are characters with tremendous flaws but you can feel sorry for all of them. Even Cooper’s ex-military character, a discipline freak with a cold dead stare, turns out to have a human fragility beneath his scary exterior. The film’s frank handling of homosexuality (although this is a minor theme) is admirable. Anyone who’s been in the prison system can tell you that in prison there are basically three groups of people you look out for – the blacks, the white supremacists, and the fags – in that order. Gays have never been the threat many people have made them out to be, even the bad ones. They are people too and they should be accepted as such. It’s nice to see a film with the balls to admit that.

The director, Mendes, is apparently a sensation on Broadway, having masterminded THE BLUE ROOM, the play made famous by Nicole Kidman’s nudity. When I heard about this, I assumed Mendes was a playwright, and the dialogue and subject matter of the movie certainly fit those expectations. But the screenplay was written by Alan Ball, and Mendes, it turns out, is a theater director, not writer. This is his first film, but he’s segued excellently to the silver screen. The film takes place mostly in one neighborhood, but never feels claustrophic or staged. The camera moves freely, even flying through the sky, and Mendes creates many purely cinematic images, in particular a motif of brilliant rose petals within Lester’s sexual fantasies. Still, the movie lives up to Mendes’ envelope-pushing rep, dealing honestly with teen sexuality and even breaking the law by including footage of underaged girl’s tits. There are no pussy shots, however.

I’ve heard some critics complain about Lester’s death being foretold in the opening narration, saying that it took away the surprise and mystery of the story. I think the truth is just the opposite. By letting us know where this is ultimately leading, Mendes and Ball are able to build suspense and play mercilessly with audience expectations. First you think the daughter will hire the neighbor kid to kill him. Then Bening starts firing off guns to relax. And that homophobic ex-soldier neighbor thinks Lester is gay. There are many suspects, and we don’t even know for sure it will be murder. It’s not as if the film relies entirely on this gimmick, but it certainly works to the film’s advantage.

Another important moment in the film is when, after lusting over her throughout the movie, Lester gets the opportunity to bed his daughter’s flirtatious friend from the cheerleading squad. The scene is very unnerving, because the actress has enormous, child-like eyes, which are hard to ignore even floating above her luscious nipples. But Lester ignores them until the girl admits that this is her first time, she’s always lied about her sexual experience. Immediately Lester is knocked out of his childish fantasy. This is just a little girl, a virgin, a peer of his daughter. I don’t know whether it just ruins the mood, or gives him a conscience, but he decides to call it off. I think this is a scene most men Spacey’s age or older can relate to, whether they’ve had a similar experience with an underaged girl, or something experimental such as a threesome (or both). The reality turns out to be much uglier than the fantasy, and the experience is bogged down in fragile emotions and potential life long trauma. Lester might be able to brag about it afterwards, but it would be the wrong thing to do, and the girl would take the brunt of it.

AMERICAN beauty is a very good film, well acted, written and directed. It is one of the year’s best films, considerably better than MEN IN BLACK although perhaps not on the level of a DIE HARD.

Well that’s my review, thanks guys.

Vernon H.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, August 21st, 1999 at 10:34 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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