American Beauty - movie review (March 22, 2000)

How do you know what lies underneath the facade of a perfect suburban neighborhood?

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a writer for a media magazine; wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is an independent real estate broker; and pretty high school teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is stereotypically brooding and disdainful of her parents. Into this barely maintained illusion of the typical American family enters new next-door neighbors the Fitts, with very-patriarchal ex-Marine Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), who is disgusted with neighborhood gay couple Jim (Scott Bakula) and Jim, mousy wife Barbara Fitts (Allison Janney) and son Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who himself maintains illusions for his father and who also shows a cinematic interest in Jane. The situation is further complicated when Carolyn's decision to befriend real estate rival Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) becomes more than she intends, and Lester develops an intense interest in Jane's sexy and voluptuous friend and fellow cheerleader Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). Lester tries to break out of the stereotypical suburban mold, but such a breakdown in the established structure has dire consequences all around.

This film, which starts off as a black comedy and then descends into something much darker, challenges our perceptions and preconceived notions about almost everything we know. Many of the characters in the film are archetypes, and while they start off in familiar territory, we watch as their true identities are revealed to us. Sure, some of the surprises are darkly funny, but by the end of the film, we are left to examine our own lives in the context of what has just been presented.

Kevin Spacey ("The Usual Suspects" and "L.A. Confidential") is terrific as the numbed head-of-household who decides he wants to live again.  Annette Bening ("Valmont", "Clear and Present Danger", "Regarding Henry", "The Grifters", "Bugsy", "The American President" and the upcoming "What Planet Are You From?") is good as the wife and mother who doesn't quite know how to be either. Thora Birch ("Parenthood", "All I Want For Christmas", "Patriot Games", "Clear and Present Danger" and TV's "Day by Day") is fine as the neglected daughter who finds another outlet for her needs. Wes Bentley is terrific as the enigmatic Ricky Fitts; Mena Suvari ("Kiss the Girls" and "American Pie") is great as the sexpot cheerleader whose bravado may be more than her bite; Peter Gallagher ("sex, lies and videotape", "The Player", "Bob Roberts", "While You Were Sleeping" and "To Gillian on her 37th Birthday") is fine as Carolyn's one-dimensional one-time rival; Chris Cooper ("Guilty by Suspicion", "A Time to Kill", "The Horse Whisperer" and the upcoming "Me, Myself and Irene") is fine as the straight-laced ex-military man who has more to hide than anyone; Allison Janney ("Big Night", "The Ice Storm", "Primary Colors", "The Object of My Affection", "Six Days Seven Nights", "The Imposters", "Drop Dead Gorgeous" and currently on TV's "The West Wing") is mostly forgettable in a non-descript role; and Scott Bakula ("Sibling Rivalry", "Necessary Roughness" and TV?s "Quantum Leap") is fun to watch in a mostly cameo role.

This film has been nominated for a number of Oscars and has won numerous other awards, and while it's probably not my choice in any of the categories, odds are good that at least a few of the nominees from this film will walk away with an Oscar.

This film is a definite recommend, and if you can catch it before Sunday's Oscars, all the better.


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