American Beauty (1999)
Kevin gets Spacey over Mena Suvari
Look at me, jerking off in the shower... This will be the high point of my day; it's all downhill from here - Lester Burnham
Sam Mendes is not the first director to take us behind the seemingly American ideal of white picket fences and happy marriage to show the dysfuncionality of family life behind the facade and I am sure he won't be the last. But he is the director who did so in a very brave, very edgy, darkly amusing as well as disturbing way with "American Beauty" which garnered praise and awards like so few movies achieve. The thing is being brave, being edgy, being simply different doesn't automatically mean a movie is good let alone great and whilst watching something which isn't afraid to push boundaries of social acceptance makes a change from everyday mediocre movies it doesn't necessary mean you should say it is great. Can you see where this is going because quite frankly I don't think "American Beauty" is a great movie; it is certainly good and above average but it is not great. In attempt to be brave and push the boundaries Mendes goes too far delivering a fascinating but disjointed and flawed look at a dysfunctional family.
From the outside the Burnham's Lester (Kevin Spacey - The Negotiator), Carolyn (Annette Bening) and their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) appear to be the perfect family, with the perfect house in the perfect neighbourhood. But behind the white picket fence life is not so perfect especially for Lester who is in the midst of a depression and has no will to fight anymore. That is until it all gets too much for him and in the grips of midlife crisis starts to lust after Jane's best friend the flirtatious Angela (Mena Suvari - American Pie), dreaming about her in provocative poses. The Burnham's are not the only dysfunctional family on the street as their new neighbours the Fitts have just as many problems especially Ricky (Wes Bentley - Ghost Rider) who whilst falling for Jane also runs a secret drug dealing business and puts up with his homophobic father.
So like other movies the story of "American Beauty" is basically a look at the truth which lurks behind those white picket fences of America where families may look perfect from the outside but hide truths on the inside. And at the centre of "American Beauty" is the Burnham family and in particular Lester Burnham who is suffering a midlife crisis, lacks the will to do anything including standing up to his wife and daughter who belittle him at every opportunity. To put it simply Mendes and writer Alan Ball create this typical American family but one who has problems which also include Lester's wife being an ambitious realtor and his daughter Jane being, well being a typical teenage rebel.
But to be honest this family doesn't feel real, it feels forced and an amalgamation of cliches highlighted by the fact that Lester's non conformist daughter Jane is still happy to be a cheerleader dancing some cheesy routine at a basketball match. The Burnham's are not the only dysfunctional family on their street as there are the new neighbours the Fitts who between a drug dealing son and a homophobic military father again feel like a forced amalgamation of family ills.
Now what is interesting, what is fascinating and entertaining is how we watch things come to a head in the Burnham family as Lester finally breaks and tries not only to take back his life but recapture the past. And what causes him to do this is that he falls for his daughter's friend Angela who for some perverse way finds flirting with Lester fun. And so we watch him get sacked and take work in a burger joint, start working out to look fit so he can seduce Angela whilst also re-finding a taste for smoking pot, supplied by his neighbour Ricky who keeps his drugs business a secret. It is shall we say a mix of the disturbing and the darkly funny as Lester fantasizes about Angela whilst leading his new life.
And it's not just Lester who provides that mix of disturbing and darkly funny as you have his wife Carolyn who finds herself falling for her rival realtor, intoxicated by his drive. Plus there is Col. Frank Fitts whose military style parenting oh Ricky is just as disturbing whilst the way Ricky keeps his drugs business running in secret provides the amusement.
But here is the thing in trying to be edgy, different and brave it just feels like Mendes ends up forcing it, going one step to far. Take a scene where Jane knowing that Ricky will be videoing her from his bedroom window gets undressed in front of hers, which means we get to see Thora Birch topless who at the time of filming "American Beauty" was still a minor. Did we need to see Jane topless, couldn't Mendes of made an equally powerful scene without this, I personally think so and it is this sort of thing which feels like he is trying to be too brave. The same with the opening which features Lester jerking off in the shower, we may not get a full on view but did we need it to be so obvious. Don't get me wrong I am no prude but it just feels like Mendes is trying to push the wrong boundaries.
Ironically the storyline which sees Lester trying to seduce Jane's best friend Angela ends up less risque, still a little disturbing but controlled wonderfully. And it is the same with other sub plots as Mendes delivers them spot on but then forces elements which don't need to be, spoiling the cleverness of "American Beauty" in doing so.
Despite this you have to say that "American Beauty" has one thing definitely going for it and that is the casting. Annette Benning is magnificent as Carolyn delivering that element of being obsessive about wealth and status whilst Chris Cooper steals many a scene as Ricky's homophobic father.
In fact both Thora Birch and Wes Bentley are just as good as Jane and Ricky even if their characters feel like forced amalgamations of cliches. But it is very much Kevin Spacey who makes "American Beauty" as good as it is because we warm to him, we feel for him when he is in the midst of his depression and enjoy the freedom he experiences when he basically reclaims his life. It is because Spacey is so good as Lester that he does come across as creepy as he perves over Angela yet we still warm to him because Spacey makes him human and frankly funny.
What this all boils down to is that "American Beauty" is a good movie, it is definitely better than your usual movie and it is a darkly amusing look at life behind the white picket fences. But whilst entertaining and featuring a brilliant performance from Kevin Spacey it just feels that Sam Mendes forces things in trying to be brave and different and that forcing for me spoils what could have been an exceptional movie rather than just one which is memorably very good.
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