American Beauty review

:. Director: Sam Mendes
:. Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening
:. Running Time: 2:02
:. Year: 1999
:. Country: USA


Corrosive, provocative, and iconoclastic, American Beauty strips America and, by extension, the famous American Dream.

Even more surprising, American Beauty comes from Dreamworks, who has specialized in promoting politically correct values in such films as Saving Private Ryan, Prince of Egypt, and The Peacemaker, among others. This new production is not only an important change of artistic hats, but also an audacious bet, knowing that the film denigrates what the other studio productions extol. It's to their credit. The English director, Sam Mendes, for whom this is his first film, is a theater renegade who made his mark with The Blue Room, the sulfurous play with Nicole Kidman, the play that inspired the film Little Voice, and the Broadway adaptation of Cabaret.

Kevin Spacey plays the especially pathetic father of a family whose mid-life crisis will suddenly wake him. This crisis, however, is not the subject of the film. On the contrary, it's the catalyst that will explode into their lives and allow the film to strip away several layers of American society. In fact, the film denounces the hypocrisy of a society obsessed with an outer appearance of success but is eaten away by frustration on the inside, thus destroying a certain American Dream. Here, Puritanism, patriotism, empowerment, and corporate America will not be spared.

The film starts off strongly, revealing Kevin Spacey in the shower masturbating, explaining that this is the high point of his day. The film immediately puts a finger on his sexual frustration. Married and a father, the character has not had sex in some time with his wife (Annette Bening), who is more obsessed with decorating her house. Under the appearance of marital happiness lies a more serious problem. This frustration pushes the character to fantasize about his daughter's classmate, which will trigger him to begin working out to become sexier and seduce her. The young girl incarnates this American beauty symbolized by fresh rose petals (in Spacey's fantasies) contrasted with the planted rosebushes in his wife's garden whose rigid beauty testifies to an absence of sexual desire for his wife. American Beauty denounces this America that, under a guise of Puritanism, commits the irreproachable, like family fathers chasing after young girls. Sexual frustration touches several other characters. Annette Bening will go find satisfaction elsewhere, while his neighbor's homophobia seems to be a result of frustration tied to a puritanical education where these tendencies are not accepted.

The film attacks patriotism next. The neighbor, a retired colonel, guards his family with an iron grip, having made his wife a quasi zombie and doesn't hesitate to raise his son on the correct path with a few punches. This discipline is so severe that his son, by reaction, is a drug dealer. The fact that the father has the family watch war movies starring Ronald Reagan is a direct allusion to a conservative America. But where the goes further is with denunciation of rampant fascism of exaggerated patriotism and militarist culture. The highlight of the colonel's military artifact collection is a plate of the Third Reich adorned with a swastika, that the son specifies is an object coveted by collectors. How not to be shocked by the hypocrisy of a society that bans unhealthy nudity on TV but openly sells SS daggers and photos of Hitler in antique shops.

American Beauty also takes on "Empowerment", the culture of power through self motivation. The film uses the best vehicle possible, the real estate industry, one of the most aggressive, already targeted in Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey. Annette Bening's lover is none other than the King of Real Estate, who will communicate to her thirst of power (as well as quench her sexual thirst). There, one sees a world where a winner appearance is the key to success. The use of self motivation cassettes is a part of this culture of American society, and can also be found in the form of books, posters, videos, and informercials for suckers who have not succeeded. One notes with amusement that the sensation of power may be amplified by the possession of fire arms, matches up with the gun collection of the colonel, as if to better underline this point.

Nor is corporate culture spared. Spacey's character is confronted with a young wolf whose meaningless pompous title is just a pretext to justify abusive dismissals. redundancies. More than the precariousness in terms of the grounds for dismissal, the film attacks the abuses that reign large corporations, from management that uses call girls that the back of society pays for, to Spacey, who uses blackmail and threatens a charge of sexual harassment against his superior.

Beyond all of these specific attacks, it's the American dream that takes a hit. In effect Spacey's family has achieved it: own a big house in the suburbs, beautiful furniture, a beautiful garden, a comfortable salary, a cute daughter and a minivan. Yet, it's all an illusion, since none of the characters is happy and the family nucleus explodes. In this journey after apparent fortune, all personal passion was sacrificed until living was forgotten. It's the daughter, the most lucid member of the family who is the witness despite her marginal appearance: she hates her parents, whom she takes for freaks. She is on the fringe of an ugly society that she rejects. She only finds happiness and beauty through the camera of her boyfriend, the colonel's son, who like her, is on the fringe after having been interned in a psychiatric hospital. The film plants doubts in terms of their sanity, as in confessing their desire of parricide in front of his camera. The daughter then asks her boyfriend, off camera, if he knows that she was joking. Nothing is certain. What is certain, is that they both find beauty through this camera used as a filter.

American Beauty comes close to the provocative cinema and black humor in which Happiness belongs. One laughs but its grating, twisted, and so even more enjoyable. The film incorporates the hilarious and perverted fantasies of Spacey concerning his daughter's friend. One of the rare moments where a two hour film doesn't seem endless.

Finally, the acting blends perfectly with the tone of the film. Spacey is exceptional, obviously, since for the first time he plays a loser who makes you laugh. You have to see him fantasize over the young girl, with his hilarious grimaces, getting high, or masturbating in bed under his wife's nose. Finally, he returns to known ground in flying colors, from a 40-ish man in the middle of a mid-life crisis waking up after twenty years of a comatose marriage. Annette Bening is sparkling and imposes her presence on the screen while the teenagers are finally tuned, from the rebellious daughter (Thora Birch) and her deluded girlfriend (Mena Survani) to the coloner's son (Wes Bentley).

The brutal conclusion of the film is in the image of its premise: looks can be deceiving. Just like its title.

  Fred Thom

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