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American Beauty.

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American Beauty Spacey and Bening play the unhappily married Burnhams. They have a daughter Jane (Thora Birch) and a nice house in the suburbs, replete with expensive tasteful furniture and a Mercedes SUV. Spacey's character is Lester, a sarcastic but weak-willed advertising writer who inwardly loathes his job and regards his wife with disdain--though he obeys her. Bening is Carolyn: a high-strung career-minded woman with an elaborately coiffured hair, garden, and lifestyle. They have such opposite interests, it's a wonder they can live together. The film open with videotape footage of Jane complaining about her father. A voice offscreen asks if she'd like him "out of the way." "Yes. Would you?" she deadpans. Then our story begins as Lester's voice-over informs us that he will be dead within a year. It's no spoiler to reveal then that Lester's narration is going to carry the dramatic weight of one beyond the grave, like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard. ...read more.


His name is Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). We've already been introduced to him as the weird quiet guy who videotapes everything, and whose favorite subject is Jane, in whom he detects an inner beauty. Lester befriends Ricky in an extremely funny pot-smoking scene, and is inspired to quit his job and try to recapture the part of his life when everything was more fun. His job resignation scene is a fantasy of how all of us would like to be able to quit our jobs. While Lester's life is bent on a path returning to hedonistic pleasures of days gone by, Carolyn takes the opposite course of power-seeking. Lester finds a job with "the least amount of responsibility" while Carolyn sleeps with the slimy realtor Buddy "The King" Kane and takes up gun-shooting. Though satiric, these are both common responses to midlife crises, only they are practiced so extremely in this case that Jane thinks her parents are going crazy. ...read more.


I was very impressed with first-time director Sam Mendes and first-time screenwriter Alan Ball. Every character is well-developed and revealed to be more than their initial stereotype would suggest. Mendes shapes the film in chapters, each one beginning with a bird's eye crane shot swooping down into the surburban street. The episodic quality keeps the movie's pace brisk as it teeters toward its cataclysmic ending, reminiscent of The Ice Storm, as it takes place on a rainy night. The performances are all very good. Spacey, Bening, Birch and Bentley all handle both the comedic and serious material well. Bening skirts going over-the-top but keeps her balance--her character is a shrill one anyway. Spacey's signature smug sarcasm is employed here, but so is an inner kindness that eventually overtakes his juvenile mischieviousness. Special note should be made for Chris Cooper, who for the second time this year plays a strong-willed ballbreaking father of the old-fashioned type (the first time in October Sky). He hits his notes right though, and because he is able to seem real his character comes away all the more powerful in the end. ...read more.

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