American Beauty

According to the producers of American Beauty, the title can take on at least three meanings. It could be the roses that Carolyn Burnam (Annette Benning, The Siege, In Dreams) grows in her front yard, or it could represent Angela (Mena Suvari, American Pie, Kiss the Girls), the young high school vamp that tries to seduce Carolyn's husband Lester (Kevin Spacey, LA Confidential, A Bug's Life). Or, it could be a reference to what we think is beautiful in our lives, in respect to the American dream. American Beauty dares you to attempt to categorize it. Is it a dark comedy? Yes. Is it a serious drama about a family? Yes. It is also much more. The new film by first time movie director Sam Mendes (Broadway's The Blue Room and the revival of Cabaret) is a complex treat.

Lester is beginning to realize that his life is hell. His marriage has no true feeling, his daughter hates him, and he hates his job at a magazine. Carolyn is controlling and obsessed with trying to best real estate rival Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher, of the upcoming The House on Haunted Hill). Their daughter Jane (Thora Birch, Alaska and the upcoming Dungeons and Dragons) feels extremely ordinary aside her friend Angela, who aspires to be a model. Moving in next door is Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley, Beloved), a teen that sells drugs and tapes everything he sees. His father introduces himself as 'Colonel Fitts, USMC' (Chris Cooper, October Sky, The Horse Whisperer). "Look Closer" proclaims the scrap of paper on Lester's cubicle wall. He realizes that he is far from happy, and the last time he was happy was around the time he was in college. He quits his job, and begins fantasizing about Angela. Carolyn's mantra is "to be successful, one must project an aura of success," which, when she discovers also isn't working, so she begins an affair with Kane. Jane feigns disgust at Ricky's constant videotaping of her, but secretly is happy that she is being noticed.

Screenwriter Alan Ball scores a double whammy with American Beauty debuting shortly before a television series of his, Oh Grow Up on ABC. The script here is thought provoking and completely unpredictable. Ball and Mendes continually set you up for what seems like a predictable story, then completely and unexpectedly turn things around. Although Ball and Mendes are almost toying with us, it is refreshing to experience something new when going to the movies. Moments of near hilarity are juxtaposed with very emotional scenes that almost hurt to watch. None of these characters are can be judged for who they are on the surface. Upon closer inspection, the people in American Beauty are not people that we watch in the movies, they are much closer to who we are. We all know the feelings of disillusionment and isolation felt by each character in the movie. Each character goes upon their own quest to find true happiness, something that we can all identify with.

The superb acting complements the Mendes' direction and Ball's script. Spacey and Benning both start on a low energy level. Everyone, especially his family, considers Lester a loser. As each person begins to realize what they truly want, their actions become increasingly over the top. Spacey begins working out to impress Angela. Benning retreats further into her ideal of the perfect marriage. By the end of the movie, they are essentially crazy, but their transformation is completely believable. Bentley and Birch give much more subdued performances, with Jane character slowly realizing that being ordinary may be a good thing, and Ricky trying to live his life in the presence of his overbearing father. Chris Cooper in another one of his many supporting roles is excellent as he usually is. His Col. Fitts is a man also is also slowly realizing that he is living in denial.

The one category that American Beauty does not defy is that it is a good movie. Now that the summer movie season is over, movies that are more serious and that deserve merit can be released, and American Beauty is a good movie to begin the Oscar season.

Haro Rates It: Really Good
1 hour, 58 minutes, Rated R for strong sexuality, drug content, and language.

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