"American Beauty" presents a cynical parody on suburban life with just enough moxie and intelligence to awaken angst among the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which loves to reward a movie with a message.
The film's gothic-tale-with-a-humorous-bent attracted eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor and Actress in a Leading Role.
This is a story about the destructive urges of two suburban families, living side by side in the American dream of wealth and comfort until their interaction leads to mutual self-destruction.
"American Beauty," playing at Westgate 10, follows a well-traveled path in its critique of life-gone-sour, but tells it in a quirky, sometimes humorous, always tragic way.
In Sam Mendes' hands, "American Beauty" is more theater than it is film, in keeping with the first-time director's devotion-to-the-dramatic-stage career so far.
His highly polished, overly embellished view unfolds in scenes fit for a major stage production, the characters frozen in lobotomized eyes-front camera shots, endless conversations, and an occasional self-addressed tantrum or soliloquy.
When movement occurs, the camera places the audience in the passenger's seat of a car or on location at the local drive-through hamburger joint. But even these journeys away from the major sets -- in two neighboring suburban houses -- seemed as static as well-posed portraits in the window of the photo shop on Main Street.
Most of all, "American Beauty" is a character study, the incidentals of the plot tossed together with a little of this and a little of that to make the statement intended by the film: golly, life in suburbia really sucks. Duh!
Screenwriter Alan Ball's premise assumes the audience doesn't know this already and will have to suspend its collective beliefs in order to grasp the message (which jumps off the screen like an angry gorilla).
In fact, the film tells us nothing we didn't already know. It may even demean for us the melody of its theme -- inspiring doubt about its veracity -- with a plot line as fantastic as its obvious artistic counterpoint, "Leave It To Beaver."
Tightly edited, "American Beauty" won a nomination for cinematography, based primarily on its still life scenes of suburban order and prosperity, sort of updated versions of the Rockwellian ideal.
The script deals with the typical midlife crisis of growing older in America, where lean-mean bodies, full heads of hair, and true love are national obsessions.
The film's lead actors Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening received Best Actor and Actress nominations for their widely acclaimed performances as Lester and Carolyn Burnham, the suburban couple whose marriage dies on the vine of ambition and indifference.
Their alienated daughter Jane (Thora Birch) strikes up a relationship with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the pot-dealing son of the Burnhams' neighbors, who of course are submerged in their own set of marital woes, including physical and mental abuse.
Narrated by Lester, the story winds its way into pedophilic temptation, adultery, and latent homosexuality, all of which culminate in a brutal and bloody murder at the kitchen table.
"American Beauty" says the obvious: The creamy texture of suburban life will reveal its blackened curds if you look hard enough.
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