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Second Sight: American Beauty

by Glenn Kenny 4 years ago in movie / review

Film Critic Glenn Kenny looks back on his 'Premiere' movie review for the 1999 film, 'American Beauty.'

Nowadays, when people talk about American Beauty, it’s largely in terms of how overpraised it was despite being superficial and facile and full of it and how lame (sorry for the ableist language) that Wes Bentley plastic bag bit was, and so on. So, some of the yunguns in the audience might be wondering, who WERE these yoyos who thought the movie was so great?

Mon sembable mon frere, hypocrite lecteur, etc., etc., I stand before you an entirely guilty man. The below review of American Beauty matches the dictionary definition of “fulsome,” if not “prolix.” It’s not long enough to be prolix, I think.

The thing about American Beauty is, while one is experiencing it directly under the correct circumstances, it does move right along and can conceivably envelope the viewer to the extent that he/she might mistake its ambition for its achievement. That is to say, while watching this picture, it did its work on me, much the way a Star Wars film or Manchester by the Sea can do its work on you.

I still think that there are individual components of the film that have legitimacy. I also think, had I been looking harder, I should have been able to see just how incoherent the movie’s finale was. Anyway, a whole lot of this movie’s detractors went on to become staunch supporters of Six Feet Under, an Alan Ball project that really had very similar “issues” to this film’s, so je regrette rien.

1999 'American Beauty' Review

If it were merely aspiring to satire, American Beauty would be a very diverting, attractively barbed send-up of the almost surreal banality of late-20th-century suburbia. But the miracle of this movie, directed by first-time filmmaker Sam Mendes from a script by television-comedy writer Alan Ball, is that it reaches for much higher ground—and gets there. For all of the sometimes uproarious, sometimes curdled laughter it elicits, American Beauty is, foremost and finally, a haunting, endlessly unnerving cinematic poem.

Set in a sunny, bare-tree-festooned Anytown, U.S.A., Beauty focuses on the spectacularly screwed-up Burnham family: Lester (Kevin Spacey), the drolly jaded, seemingly sitcom-hapless father-head; wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), a frantically self-asserting real estate agent whose ambition in life, it seems, is to become completely plastic; and daughter Jane (Thora Birch), the world's crankiest cheerleader, who's such a welter of insecurity that she's considering breast-augmentation surgery, even though it's abundantly clear that she, well, doesn't need it.

That may sound a little dirty old-mannish, but American Beauty forces the viewer to make that observation, and does so for very good reasons. The movie is about facing life and seeing it plain–and the awkwardness of teen sexuality and the sometimes indelicate nature of middle-aged male desire are two things it puts right in our faces. Lester undergoes a strange and fearsome transformation shortly after Jane reluctantly introduces him to fellow cheerleader and outrageous sexual braggart Angela (Mena Suvari); having recently concluded that his life is shit, he decides to regress to his 19-year-old self, much to the furious consternation of Carolyn. In the meantime, the Burnham's new neighbors, a very straight-arrow retired Marine (Chris Cooper); his near-catatonic wife (Allison Janney); and their nerdy-seeming son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), are trying to maintain a home that seems to have been teleported from a '50s sitcom that is, except for Ricky, who's quietly stirring things up with the help of his video camera.

It won't do to say where Beauty goes from there, but wherever you think it's headed at any moment, you're likely to be wrong. Ball's script is endlessly inventive and off-the-wall, and it contains scenes that require such a precise coordination of shifting emotional pitch that a lesser director could have easily made an utter mess of them. Fortunately, Mendes, whose theatrical work includes the highly touted Broadway revival of Cabaret, handles his debut film with astonishing assurance and vision. Shooting in hard-to-master widescreen, Mendes achieves a wonderfully skewed visual style, often framing his characters against vast and textured but peculiarly blank backdrops that highlight their isolation. One particularly effective set piece is a montage that shows Carolyn preparing a house to show to prospective buyers; Bening's hyper near-hysteria, Mendes's unerring sense of timing, and Naomi Shohan's visionary production design make the scene a bizarre comic classic, something out of Frank Tashlin (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) as art-directed by David Hockney.

Spacey is predictably magnificent in this mercurial role; indeed, the whole cast amazes. While some of the final plot machinations are perhaps a little more cartoonish than they need be, Beauty's final evocation of grace among ruins is both haunting and heartening. Harsh as it often is, American Beauty is genuinely a thing of beauty.

Glenn Kenny
Glenn Kenny
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Glenn Kenny

Senior editor and chief film critic of Premiere magazine, 1998-2007. Appears as Dick Filth in David Foster Wallace's essay "Big Red Son." Author and Editor. New York Times Writer.

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