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Review: 'American Beauty' is just that

Web posted on:
Friday, September 17, 1999 2:57:31 PM EDT

By Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- "American Beauty" is deeply disturbing, acerbically funny, brilliantly acted, breathtakingly original and highly sophisticated.

In other words, it's not your typical high-concept Hollywood film, and some feel it might be a hard sell with mainstream audiences. But positive word-of-mouth is spreading through the industry after early screenings in Los Angeles and New York City. Rest assured, this film will not be overlooked come Academy Awards time.

Kevin Spacey gives an Oscar-caliber performance as Lester Burnham, a man only going through the motions of living. At heart, he's lost and searching for meaning in his well-appointed but empty life. Annette Bening may also be considered for Oscar gold for her portrayal as his brittle wife Carolyn. She's a woman who just skims the surface of life, preferring a thin facade to introspection.

Their daughter Jane, played with mature confidence by Thora Birch, is emotionally removed from them and is just serving time until she can escape the confines of her homelife. Mena Suvari gives a smoldering performance as Angela Hayes, Jane's best friend. Angela is a Lolita-in-waiting and sets her sights on Lester, a sitting duck for a domestic disaster.

The strange boy next door enters the picture. Ricky Fitts, played by Wes Bentley, is a troubled soul who pines for Jane and is befriended by her increasingly unstable father, Lester. Fitts has an annoying habit of videotaping everyone around him and his footage, (his POV, or point-of-view), is used as a counterpoint to the story and is artfully intercut as part of the film.

Ricky's father, Col. Fitts, is played by Chris Cooper. He's a recently retired Marine with a twisted sense of how to raise and discipline his son. Ricky's mother, played by Allison Janney, is just an emotional shell. She's incapable of doing anything more than just sitting by and watching while her family falls apart. As Ricky observes at one point, "Never underestimate the power of denial."

In short order, Lester leaves his boring job after blackmailing his boss, and Carolyn has a brief affair with a fellow real-estate broker played by Peter Gallagher. All hell breaks lose in both families as carefully constructed illusions about their lives fall apart.

Alan Ball and Sam Mendes

Thought-provoking and scathingly funny, "American Beauty" is the motion-picture debut of two brilliant new talents, and the confirmation of the gifts of two others. American screenwriter Alan Ball and British director Sam Mendes -- both from the theater -- introduce their skills to cinema in this tightly wrought and multilayered film. And once again, Bening and Spacey prove themselves to be two of the our strongest actors.

The 34-year-old Mendes was nominated for a 1998 Tony for his direction of the Roundabout Theatre's Broadway revival of "Cabaret" with Alan Cummings and Natasha Richardson. And he staged the past season's limited run at Broadway's Cort Theatre of David Hare's "The Blue Room" with Nicole Kidman.

Mendes has an amazing cinematic eye; his grasp of visual technique is powerful and original. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he has the legendary Conrad L. Hall ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," 1969) as his cinematographer.

Ball, who also serves as a co-producer on this film, has roots not only in theater -- his work is known particularly in the Sarasota, Florida, and New York theater communities -- but also in television. He's written on sitcoms including "Cybill" and "Grace Under Fire" and is a writer-executive behind the creation of the new Wednesday night ABC comedy "Oh Grow Up." ("Oh Grow Up" premieres on Wednesday, September 22.)

Spaceying out

Spacey's droll narration of the film is perfectly pitched. It opens with Lester introducing himself and his family. He wryly observes, "I'm 42 years old. In less then a year, I'll be dead. Of course, I don't know that yet. In a way, I'm dead already."

This is a glibly delivered bit of information, telling us the film is a flashback being narrated by a dead man.


Bening turns in her finest performance since "The Grifters" in 1990. Delicate and fragile, then goading and resentful, her Carolyn is obsessed by image and helpless in the face of reality.

"American Beauty" is one of the best films released so far this year. It proves again that any great film starts with the written word.

This DreamWorks production also makes it clear, once again, that a big budget isn't necessary for success. "American Beauty" cost less than $15 million to make. Spacey, Benning and Hall cut their normal fees in order to get this project made. You'll be glad they did -- and so may they be, come nomination time for this year's Academy Awards.

"American Beauty" opens in New York and Los Angeles Friday, then nationwide on October 1. It is rated R for drug use, language and sexual content. The film has a running time of 122 minutes.

Spacey, Bening win Boston Fest awards
September 13, 1999
'Death of a Salesman' tops Tony winners
June 7, 1999
Review: Jackson, Spacey hostage to an average 'Negotiator'
August 6, 1998

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