Lester Burnham (Spacey) has the idyllic American life--successful career, gorgeous suburban house, lovely daughter (Birch) and a beautiful wife (Bening) with a rising career of her own. But as Spacey says about her in his dryly insightful narration, "She used to be happy." Deep underneath, they're bored and miserable. And the neighbours aren't much better--especially the new family next door, with its voyeuristic son (Bentley), militaristic father (Cooper) and stunned-to-silence mother (Janney).
The characters are so incredibly detailed that we're drawn into each one with a mixture of fascination, concern and dread. The writing and direction are jammed full of subtle insights that touch on all kinds of themes; every scene plays on multiple layers. And as Lester finally decides that he has nothing to lose, those layers are peeled back with a wickedly funny vengeance. There are edgy fantasy sequences, unnerving dreams and then an even more unsettling reality as the need for self-esteem gives way to fear, lust and denial. The whole cast turn in Oscar-worthy performances, led by Spacey, who's transparent and honest in every scene. And it's much more than a gripping and entertaining drama; the film has a jaw-droppingly prophetic parallel with modern society that will leave you shaking in your seat. Quite simply, this is a cinematic masterpiece.
[R--strong themes, language, sexual situations] 2.Nov.99
US release 17.Sep.99; UK release 28.Jan.00
closing film 43rd London Film Festival
Winner: 5 Oscars (film, director, actor Spacey, original screenplay, cinematography Conrad L Hall); 3 Golden Globes (dramatic film, director, screenplay).
"Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening both gave excellent, multi-faceted, multi-layered performances in what is the best movie I've seen all year. Both played, to varying degrees, flawed, defective people, as husband & wife of a mostly dead marriage, and both managed to have somewhat sympathetic sides to them (which, given the script was a much more difficult feat for Bening). Kevin just keeps topping himself in terms of excellent performances, but the character that stayed with me for days after, was the new next door neighbor, Ricky, played by Wes Bentley. There were so many layers to his character, and all played so subtlely, that he was impossible to label - and impossible to dismiss. My hat goes off to Sam Mendes for excellent direction. It was enjoyable to see a movie with such richly written characters, instead of repeating the same old cliches, and one which dares to 'look closer' into the lives of our current culture. I highly recommend this film." --Jennifer, Los Angeles.
"****1/2 A lighter Happiness with a touch of Fight Club. A lifeless couple (Bening and Spacey) make a few changes to their lives whilst dealing with some unusual neighbours. Cleverly delves deep below the thin veneer of American society and exposes the ugly truth. A must see that proves that the US can still produce great films. Would make an interesting double feature with Being John Malkovich!" --Gawain M, Filmnet, Melbourne.
"What a film. It's deep, complex, funny, tragic and theatrical. Never have I been so engaged with character development in a film. Every single character, even the downtrodden wife next door makes a journey during the film, and you cannot help but empathise with them all. Bening is just utterly convincing as Carolyn, the wound-up, stressed out, and ultimately lost and lonely mother and wife. I was delighted with the discoveries that Spacey, as Lester, made about himself during the course of the film, and I envied him the fun and abandon he realised he could have, just in time. And as for those neighbours.... I didn't twig about the Colonel (Chris Cooper) right til the end; and even he, with his monstrous nature, made me feel sorry for him. Best of all, this is not a film that makes everything cringingly obvious. The audience is required to think things out for themselves - what a novelty that is for Hollywood, where even a film like Saving Private Ryan can be soured by an unbelievably cheesy ending. Nothing cheesy at all about American Beauty - even though it offers a satisfying resolution for its main characters. Go and see this film. And when you consider that it is the first film Mendes has ever directed, it will make you wonder what on earth you have been doing with your mediocre lives. It is a masterpiece, and this director has obviously got an Oscar-ridden, golden future ahead." --Jo C, West Sussex.
"In a word: fantastic. It is an excellent satire of a dysfunctional family. It covers so many things - middle-life crisis, disoriented teenagers, homophobia, use of hand guns, drugs. But these are interwoven in an excellent script - in a mainstream way (not to alienate the Oscar judges) but being witty enough to make you think a lot about the issues it actually raises. Spacey is fabulous, he really deserves an Oscar!" --Mike S, London.
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