Main cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Bunham), Annette Benning (Carolyn Bunham), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), and Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes)
Director: Sam Mendes
From all the critical Best of 1999 lists and Golden Globe awards, I thought American Beauty would be a truly first class gem. It isn't. While AB is a good movie, it is also too self-conscious of how smart it is trying to be, it preaches too much at the end, and well, it isn't the Grand Movie everyone says it is.
Poor Lester. His wife and daughter think he is a loser, and he is. Trampled on by his superiors at work only to return home to a cutting wife and insulting daughter, his sole high point in life is a masturbatory session in the shower every morning. If that's not bad enough, Lester has to be a complete dirty old man and gets the case of hotties for his daughter's friend Angela.
Poor Carolyn. She thinks her husband is one dull cow, and she has turned all her frustrations into denial. She strives to be the perfect - if unctous - housewife and real estate agent, making her lawn perfect and coordinated with the color of her gardening clothes. A control freak, she believes success equates happiness. Hence she resents her career-wise stagnant husband and feels that she is the one who always has to measure up.
Then there's Jane, the rude, misanthropic, and rebellious daughter who has been saving up since she was 10 for a mammary gland enlargement project. When the Fitts move next door, she finds herself filmed by a creepy 18-year old Ricky with too-bright vacant eyes. Ricky sells dope and is as bad and rebellious as she is. Vegas, here they come.
Dysfunctionality makes the worst nightmare, and it shows. When Lester finally snaps, he spirals out of control, setting forth a chain of events that climax in one Big Mess Of A Night. Carolyn takes up shooting lessons and sleeping with another real estate agent to vent out her frustrations while Jane joins the fun in her illicit affair with The Boy From The Wrong Side Of The Street (he'll kill her father for $3000). Fun.
Darkly sharp and satirizing humor abound in AB, while Spacey and Benning infuse their unlikeable characters with flaws that make them sympathetic even as I laugh at them. But the real gem, actually, is Jane and Ricky's relationship, one so wrong it has to be right. Both defy rules with a vehemence and can't wait to leave the house. Jane defies her parents openly, while Ricky plays the subterfuge, hiding his illicit money-making activities with a skill that borders on being sociopathic. I like.
However, the longer the movie, the more it starts being preachy. The ending is one big sermon, ultimately irritating because this movie could've been so much more effective if it tries to be more subtle in its moralizing and attempts at making grand social statements. There are some obvious Gee, aren't we clever - hand us the Oscars baby! scenes like one particularly long and annoying sequence where Jane and Ricky watch a crumpled wad of paper fly about in the air and compare that thing to their lives. Uhm, deep.
AB is a good movie, no doubt, but it is also smirky in its smug attempts to be great. I love it, but I won't watch it twice.
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