one of Shadows' all-time best films American Beauty


Kevin Spacey gets into shape to impress the neighbours...
dir Sam Mendes scr Alan Ball
with Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Chris Cooper, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards, Barry Del Sherman
Dreamworks 99/US 5 out of 5 stars
Review by Rich Cline
From the opening moment we know we're in the hands of gifted, assured, focussed filmmakers. Everything about American Beauty, from the camera work (framing, colours, lighting, editing) to the dialog and performances all imply complex meaning and subtext. And there's a darkly comic, constantly unsettling resonance from start to finish.

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).

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look closer"This is flat out an American masterpiece, although it owes much of its genius to its British director. It's unsettling, perverse, blood-chilling, unnerving and almost defies accurate description. With its subversively quirky, Sunset Blvd.-styled opening, this film does a magical job of transporting us to territory that seems foreign, yet beguilingly familiar at the same time. The film basically examines the lives of two families living side by side. While ostensibly living the 'American Dream', both families are treading water, emotionally and spiritually. There are lines of comment here that are poetic, hilarious, chilling and devastating. When Spacey comments, 'Never underestimate the power of denial', he is secretly clueing us into the heart of the matter. These family walls could collapse at any moment. Spacey is the best he has ever been, which is saying, well, you know what that is saying. He is extraordinary. He is a man adrift. Bening finally reclaims her legacy by finding a role worthy of her talents. Her materialistic, image-obsessed housewife is harrowing and hilarious. As their daughter, Birch is extraordinary. Devastatingly insecure, bitterly unhappy, her self esteem is so low she obsesses on breast augmentation although she has the body of Salma Hayak. In a line that will give you a sense of the razor-sharp observations that layer this film, Spacey confides to us, 'I wish I could tell her that's all going to pass, but, I don't want to lie to her'. The family next door is even more dysfunctional, if possible. Headed by Marine Colonel Chris Cooper, he runs roughshod over his family like Robert Duvall in The Great Santini. While Cooper has always been superb, if he doesn't get a Supporting Actor nomination here there is no justice. Janney is frightening as his near-catatonic wife, and Bentley shines as the coping son, in a role apparently every young actor in Hollywood coveted. Bentley's link to the world is through the eyepiece of his video camera. And through this strange interfacing, he is able to connect with next door neighbor Thora, his quiet self-confidence a perfect compliment to her lack of same. Bentley has a dead-eyed Joaquin Phoenix air about him that is quite mesmerizing. His observation that 'there is this entire life behind things' is yet another clue as to what we are actually witnessing. Director Mendes makes a debut that would impress Orson Welles. He obviously has an extraordinary gift for working with actors, for this is a project that lives or dies on its performances, and this is the most delicately amazing ensemble work in recent memory. Conrad Hall handles the cinematography with brilliance; there are incredible images here that are absolutely Kubrickian. The entire delicate balance of these two households turns when Spacey discovers and becomes rapturously infatuated by his daughter's friend, played by the exquisite Suvari, last seen in American Pie. Spacey's revelation, which occurs during a cheerleader dance routine in a high school gym, is another Kubrickian moment that instantly elevates Suvari to the ultimate Lolita prototype. The effect of this encounter, and the midlife transformation that follows, sends into action the incredible events that will ultimately transform both families. I can't remember when I last saw a film, went home, couldn't stop thinking about it, and instantly turned around and returned to the theatre, such was its magnetic pull. The acting is so excellent, the direction so assured, that it is bound to leave most perceptive viewers both devastated and exhilarated simultaneously; and how often does that happen?" --Lance L, net.

"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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1999 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall