American Beauty (1999)

Originally Reviewed – 10/2/2011

When my brother and I get together, we talk flicks. Him being an aspiring film director, me an aspiring film critic, our conversations are interesting, detailed and rooted in shared experience. To be frank, we know our stuff. Last week, my brother and I met up to see Contagion and during out pre-movie dinner, our conversation turned to movies, specifically film number 11 in my Review My Collection series, American Beauty. During our conversation, I mentioned that some critics have soured on the movie over the years, saying the film is all snarky dialogue and unrealistic situations. For a little while there, I felt a little strange about loving this film as much as I do. Maybe my fond recollections of that bag floating in the wind were based on teenage ennui, not true filmmaking brilliance. Thanks to my discussion with my brother and my rewatching of the film for this review, my fears were unfounded. American Beauty is an excellent piece of modern cinema, one that provides the right mix of suburban malaise, sexual surrealism and shocking comedy that is, for lack of a better word, simply beautiful.

Opening with the soothing voiceover of our main protagonist, we met Lester (Kevin Spacey), a fourty-something magazine writer who is shambling through the ennui of American life. Walking through his days as if he’s comatose, Lester is surrounded by his materialistic wife (Annette Benning) and his brooding daughter (Thora Birch). However when Lester meets Ricky (Wes Bentley), an introverted yet intense young neighbor with an eye for Jane, he is shaken out of his doldrums to discover there is still life to be lived, even when you feel you’re on the downward slope. The feature film debut of British stage director Sam Mendes, American Beauty has a number of fascinating themes running through it. From the blandness of cookie cutter suburban life to recapturing old energy to discovering the wonder inherent in everyday things, Mendes allows the film to breathe in a way that’s quite extraordinary. While a near brilliant script by Alan Ball helps things, Mendes gives the movie life through excellent pacing and fantastic acting direction.

In fact, when discussing American Beauty, one would be remiss if they didn’t mention the amazing work of the ensemble cast. Sure, we all remember Kevin Spacey’s hilarious yet touching turn as Lester but the cast around him work equally well. Early in the production of the film, Mendes allowed for the cast to rehearse in costume on the actual sets, much like you would in a theater production, and the result is a natural chemistry between the players. Every nuance of the performances, from Mena Suvari’s turn as Jane’s self obsessed best friend to Chris Cooper as Ricky’s ex-Marine father, all capture a little piece of the American puzzle. While some of the characters border on parody, Mendes’ careful direction helps bring the oddities back to earth.

And the lauding could go on and on. While some critics have seen this movie as a enjoyable but vapid piece of Oscar bait, those reviewers should watch it again and, at the advice of the film’s trailer, “Look Closer”. Filled with moments of gut busting hilarity and heart welling emotion, all wrapped in a package that seems disarmingly familiar, American Beauty is a new century classic. In fact, when talking about this movie with my brother, he revealed that this film, along with Fight Club, made him want to peruse filmmaking as a career. Up until this point, he had no idea a movie could transcend simple entertainment and make you feel something so strongly, so simply. I imagine many people have felt this way about American Beauty and for that reason alone, it’s worth ignoring the naysayers. Watch this again for the nuance and if you haven’t seen it before, now’s the perfect time.

Score – 100%

About Bill Tucker

Jersey based and New York bred, Bill Tucker is an author of film reviews, short fiction and articles for variety of sites and subjects. He currently blogs for The Austinot (Austin lifestyle), the Entertainment Weekly Blogging Community (TV and film) and (retro gaming). He's also contributed articles to Texas Highways magazine. His favorite pastimes include craft beer snobbery, gaming and annoying his friends with random quotes from The King of Comedy. You can check out all of his literary naughty bits at View all posts by Bill Tucker

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