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Just as the film begins we learn that Lester Burnham, animated as a middle-aged extravagant by Kevin Spacey, is dead, and that he is reflecting via voice over on a time in his life in which he cut loose from his depressing lifestyle as a hopeless father, husband and employee. "I feel like I've been in a coma for the past twenty years, and I'm just now waking up," he says, just as he starts smoking pot, working out, and pursuing a sexual interest with one of his daughter's friends. He also quits his job in advertising to work at a fast food store.
Movie Poster, American Beauty
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|You can label this a middle-aged crisis only so many times before it seems like something more than that, and this central theme of a man waking up to himself in the middle of his life is, at the very least, an interesting subject. It's effectively explored and conveyed, by director Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey, always a reliable choice for roles that require a curious edge. |
For virtually every minute of its running time, 'American Beauty' suspends its viewers in its engaging American world -- it's the 90's, Lenny Kravitz's 'American Woman' is playing, and the streets and houses seem peculiarly bright and colored. Peeping through the back-windows of glossy American suburbia, the film follows the private moments in the life of Lester and those around him. It works well as a behind the scenes tour around these characters, conveying the feeling that we have no business in their ups and downs but they are there in front of us for everybody to see. Thus the image of a picturesque white picket fence lifestyle and a loving nuclear family is deconstructed, leaving only the characters to keep the "beauty" alive, and the film remains optimistic as it delves into the characters' conflicts and triumphs, and emerges with some rather confounding results, posing just as many questions as it answers, taking us to big fat nowhere but doing it with style.
Least effective and most frustrating is the ending of 'American Beauty.' Bound to be one of the years more confounding completions, Lester's death is eventually explained but ultimately poses more questions than Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball are prepared to answer. The up close and personal atmosphere of 'American Beauty' is almost spoiled when Mendes rounds off his piece, seemingly shrugging his shoulders in relation to the film's ending -- and it's completed by a speech about how much beauty there is in life, and that exact same speech has actually already been spoken by a different character earlier on. It's clear that Sam Mendes wants to hammer the point home, and whilst it is nice to see a flick that retains optimism even when it deals with death, lust, marital affairs and what-not, the ending actually serves to the film's disadvantage, distancing viewers from 'American Beauty's' naturalistic environment. For the most part, however, the distancing is minimal and the action is close-up, as Sam Mendes glides from character to conflict then back to character, keeping the personalities lifelike and the scenarios intriguing.
What is most effective, and the top reason to see 'American Beauty,' is the story of Lester Burnham as he wakes up from his twenty year coma and starts to live again. Kevin Spacey makes such an enjoyable presence that he is missed whenever he steps off-screen to let other characters and relationships take the limelight. Wes Bentley plays Lester's daughter's new boyfriend, Lester's new source for fine pot, and the new kid on the block, who carries a video camera everywhere he goes, capturing moments that he believes are particularly beautiful or interesting. The characters are vivid and their experiences seem very real.
'American Beauty' is supposedly one of the major contenders for the Academy Awards later this year, supposedly one of 1999's major artistic achievements from the US, and at least it is an interesting contender if nothing more. For a film that dabbles in the midst of character conflicts and personality, it actually has a simplistic message -- if you can be confident that you've found a message at all.
On the Buckmaster scale of 0 stars (bomb), to 5 stars (a masterpiece): 3 and a half stars
Review © copyright Luke Buckmaster Read more of my reviews at In Film Australia http://infilmau.iah.net
Due for Australian release January 26, 2000
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Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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Filed: Mar-2000 Last updated: Last tested: 8-Jul-2014 Last Compiled: 08-Aug-2014