American Beauty (1999)

by Rhonda Baughman


My jaw slackened, my senses were jolted, and I managed to forget about the world outside the movie theater for a few hours. Yeah, I also managed to “look closer” as the tag line for American Beauty suggested. And then I wasn’t able to look away.

American Beauty is by far and away one of the best movies of 1999, and be that as it may; it wouldn’t be the same without Kevin Spacey. Lester Burnham (Spacey) is an aging advertising rep on the edge of self-discovery or mental collapse, perhaps even both. His wife (Annette Bening) is now a joyless materialist on the brink of real estate epiphany. In the middle is their daughter, Jane, (Thora Birch) confused at the turmoil around her and baffled at her powerlessness to stop it.

cover art

American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Peter Gallagher, Scott Bakula, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari

US theatrical: 1 Oct 1999 (General release)

In addition to the ensemble mentioned above, we must add Jane’s nymphet pal, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) and a moody voyeur and next-door neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), as well as the gay couple two doors down (Sam Robards and Scott Bakula). Not only does this make for an unbelievably shocking and awe-inspiring flick, but it also gives me a bit of hope that Hollywood may now perk up and pay attention to the potential genius in the actors available for work, rather than giving us the same faces over and over again, whether or not they fit the role.

In many ways, this movie is scarier than The Blair Witch Project, has more truth than the inevitable ending of the Titanic, and combines the element of humor and drama better than Pulp Fiction. The fact that this movie is the cinematic debut of theatrical director Sam Mendes, is inspiring for others who may just be getting their feet wet in the world of directing movies, and it is a cathartic adventure for the viewer as well.

Without giving away the plot, which indeed left me constantly guessing as to just what might happen next, it could suffice to say that as the movie continued on, I fell in love with the characters and was saddened by the beauty in life they just kept missing at each turn. I wanted to cry with them, smile at them, and pray that like everything else in life, it would all turn out okay in the end. But, what kind of Hollywood ending is that?

American Beauty accomplishes in a mere two hours, what many movies and sequels all year long have not; it makes the viewer reason and empathize with the great American Family that struggles to get it all ‘just right, while perhaps sacrificing a bit of integrity and sanity along the way. Mr. Mendes may be an Oscar contender for his work here, and if not, the notice he has received already may at least pave the way for the next insightful and artful film he directs.

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