Ossus Library Index Drama Movie Index

AMERICAN BEAUTY

Directed by Sam Mendes (1999, Dreamworks)
Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, and Peter Gallagher

The father in a dysfunctional family decides to turn his life around, by doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

View Count: Twice

 

 

4 stars

February 15th, 2003 on DVD

 
   

This movie starts out really funny. We are meant to laugh at how stupid life can be, how silly people can be when longing for what they don't have. The prime example is Caroline's sarcasm to her daughter, "are you trying to look unattractive?"  or to her husband, "can you make me any later..." with the terrific response by Lester: his briefcase opens, spilling its entire contents onto the lawn!

The laughs come less often as the movie progresses, but that is because each of the characters begins to see how tragic their lives are, wondering what they can do to change it.

There are three truly beautiful moments in the movie (among others), all when characters begin to realize that things are better than they thought. The first comes when Ricky spells Jane's name on the driveway in gasoline. Looking in the mirror from Ricky's point of view, we see a thin smile on Jane's face, indicating that she appreciates somebody finally taking an interest in her. She won't have to resort to breast enhancement surgery (aren't hers large enough?) to attract men. If only she would smile more...

The second moment also includes Jane. When she and Angela meet Ricky after school, he is again looking at her through the video camera. She asks him briskly to stop filming her. His response: "Okay", and he puts the camera away. Is this the first person who has treated her with such respect? It was a terrific moment.

The last truly beautiful moment comes just before Lester is killed. He has just realized that he doesn't need a teenage lover, beautiful as she is, to make him happy. He looks at a picture of his family, true beauty, and realizes that he is grateful to have them. Giving himself to his family is what makes him truly happy. It's ironic that in the next moment, he is dead.

Out of the three families that we meet in this story, in houses side-by-side-by-side, it's funny to notice that the gay couple are the most normal. (Aside from seeing Enterprise's Captain Archer in that role.) Ricky's family is so dysfunctional that the mother has moved into another world, and Jane's is so dull and boring. She thinks she needs a role model? They all do!

This brings me to the subject of the Colonel's sexuality. I missed it the first time watching this movie, but this time I got the distinct feeling that he is gay, but can't cope with it. He talks rudely about the gay couple, goes nuts when he thinks his son is interested in another man, and barely pays attention to his wife. However, he suddenly sees it as a possibility to explore his feelings when he thinks his son is giving Lester oral sex. When rejected, he can't handle it anymore, and ends up killing Lester.

It's nice to have this film in widescreen DVD. The extras are pretty sparse, though mildly entertaining. I just love the trailers for this movie, and played them over again a few times (though there is very little difference between the two -one seems to be PG rated, though, with some words changed). The storyboard comparison was different, though I had a lot of trouble listening to these two guys talk for an hour. It was as if they had no idea what to say half the time, with lots of annoying pauses. This movie was released a few years ago, however, when DVDs were fairly new. There was lots of patting each other on the back, though. I didn't listen to the director's commentary, but I expect it was much of the same stuff from the storyboard comparison. Finally, the twenty minute behind-the-scenes featurette is not worth the time. The interviews are a bonus, but most of it is a replay of highlights from the movie, with very long running times, for a recap.

The movie itself was great. I thought perhaps it could have used further resolution after Lester was killed, but since the movie took place from his point of view, with his voice-over, maybe it is best the way it did end.

 

 

4 stars

January 29th, 2000 in the Theatre

 
   

I really liked this movie, although I think I can honestly say that I disliked every single character in the movie.  Each one was sad and tragic in his or her own way, but only one was willing to do anything about it.  But he wasn't the only one who realized that his life was in such a sorry state of affairs. 

Mr. Burnham hardly speaks to his wife and daughter.  He has a pathetic job, and his boss wants an excuse to fire him.  His wife is an unsuccessful real estate agent, who is completely envious of the man who is selling the most houses in the neighbourhood.  She is meticulous, and loves her things more than anything else.  The handles to her rose bush shears match her gardening apron. 

Their daughter, Jane, is a cheerleader for the school basketball team.  She hates both her parents, because she can see how fake they are, and how pathetic they are.  She doesn't realize that she is pathetic, too, wallowing in her self pity.  Her best friend, Angela, is a blond goddess who seems to have slept with the world, and she gives Jane all the juicy details of every encounter.  All she seems to talk about is sex. 

Just moved in next door to Jane and her parents is a military family.  The father believes in structure and discipline, to the point that he makes his son take urine samples every six months to be tested for drugs.  The son is actually a drug dealer, and has a pediatric nurse as a client who supplies him with clean urine.  He doesn't have feelings for anything except true beauty, and is very good at telling people what they want to hear.  His mother is inert most of the time, basically refusing to come to terms with her dysfunctional family.

These are all the characters, and they are all we need.  While attending a seminar with the real estate rival, Mrs. Burnham gets to know him a little better, and they start having an affair.  At the same seminar, Mr. Burnham is impressed when his drug dealing neighbour quits his job on the spot.  The next day, he quits his job and blackmails his company into giving him a really good severance package.  This is the start of the change in his life. 

He and his wife attend a basketball game, to watch Jane, and he immediately falls for Angela.  He begins fantasizing about her all the time, which leads to a hilarious scene where his wife catches him masturbating in bed. 

The first half of the movie is truly very funny.  As Burnham starts falling apart, and changing his life drastically, we can get a kick out of how silly life is and was, and people's reactions when the rules of life are broken.  Overhearing Angela say to Jane that she would sleep with her father if he firmed up his muscles, he dives downstairs to find his weights.  He even takes up jogging. 

The second half of the movie is deadly serious.  Burnham catches his wife with the other man, Jane takes up with her next door neighbour, and wishes her father dead.  Burnham finally succeeds in seducing Angela, after she and Jane have a big fight about beauty.  But Burnham realizes that he is finally happy, and decides at the last moment that he doesn't need Angela.  His wife takes up shooting at the firing range, and we think she'll put the training to good use. 

The most sympathetic character, I thought, was Angela.  It was obvious that she was very shallow, but as the movie progressed, I could see that she was desperately in need of love.  She needed to be thought beautiful, extraordinary, and she was never sure that she fit into that category.  By the end, she is reassured.  For Mr. Burnham, she is the American Beauty.

But the most beautiful one was Jane.  She was great.  She is dumped into self-pity, but is beginning to see her way in life.  She takes to her neighbour because she needs to see her own beauty.  When she smiles, Thora Birch totally eclipses blonde Mena Suvari. 

The true beauty in the title, I think, comes from the neighbour's video collection.  He tapes everything, in the hopes of catching beauty in life, somewhere.  He sees it in Jane, to the point where he sees how shallow Angela is.  But the most beautiful thing he has ever taped is a plastic bag floating in the wind. 

Beauty is everywhere.

 
   

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