Welcome to PAN & SCAN where you will find film reviews of some of Hollywood's latest productions.
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Starring: Kevin Spacey & Annette Bening
Genre: Comedy / Drama
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Rating: R for sexuality, language, violence & drug content.
Video Release: 08 May 2000
Tagline: " ...look closer."
Even the title itself, American Beauty, is making a statement about life and normalcy. Whether its being satiric, that nothing is normal and/or perfect or that everything about life is awe-inspiring, depends upon your own point-of-view. And that's what so great about this film -- it doesn't lecture or judge, but only provides us with different perspectives. It lets the audience make up its own mind as to what is right or wrong, normal or crazy, beautiful or not.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a man who lives the ideal American fantasy: career, family, house in the burbs. But beyond that facade, he is a man whose life is about to experience the ultimate mid-life crisis. He continues his dead marriage to wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) for their daughter's sake, so they'll look normal to the outside world. Lester admits, "Our marriage is just for show - a commercial for how normal we are, when we're anything but."
Lester gets a libidinous wake-up call in the form of the worldly, flirtatious Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) whom he encounters after a cheerleading demonstration. Just the presence of Angela and that she leads him on, makes Lester an easy target for some radical changes in his life. He quits his job, sells his car and returns to the pleasures of days gone by: working out, smoking dope, and flipping burgers at the local fast-food chain.
Carolyn Burnham also appears to be living the dream. She takes pride in her garden and gleefully carries on conversations as if she hasn't a care in the world. But, according to Lester, this is all a sham for she has grown to place a higher value on "status" than on family. As Lester states, "She has turned into a "bloodless, money-grubbing freak" and has no time for any form of intimacy. Underneath, Carolyn is masking her own mid-life drama and acts upon it after watching Lester's radical change in lifestyle. She "discovers" herself after several motel room romps with real estate biz competitor, Buddy "The King" Kane (Peter Gallagher), and takes up gun-shooting. Their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), thinking both parents have gone completely off the deep end, finds solace in the arms of the boy next door, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) -- who is anything but normal.
And if you think the Burnham's have problems -- just wait until you meet Ricky's parents!
What might appear as nothing more than the chronicles of everyday family life in America, American Beauty shows us there is far greater dramatic potential in our daily existence than we might have ever imagined. It shows us a world in which each day, no matter how mundane, is a tragic and beautiful affair. Ricky points this out to Jane, as he videotapes almost everything he sees, and shows us how to look at such ordinary or tragic events with a fresh perspective. [You might not look at a flapping bag in the breeze the same ever again].
American Beauty is also about the emotional numbness that grips us as we grow older and more set in our daily ways. We find refuge in routine and as time moves forward, the thought of change, even minuscule, can become terrifying -- even life threatening. While "suburbia" might be the American pipe dream, it has become a twisted nightmare of unfulfilled aspirations and shattered dreams for many. Because of society and the social status we find ourselves in, we find it necessary to keep up appearances. On the outside ... we might wear a smile but our true self (below the facade) conceals a breeding ground for dysfunction, distress, and deception. Happiness is replaced with stability and the artificial tranquility that is fabricated through this monotony of redundancy is what causes our false satisfaction. In this film, we see how the characters break free from their comatose existence and what rewards (and forfeitures) it brings by daring to "live" again.
American Beauty, the first feature film directed by Sam Mendes (who has an extensive background in theater) covers every aspect of dysfunction: stalking, voyeurism, adultery, forbidden love, homophobic rage, and murder. Mendes weds a compelling drama with black comedy keeping the film's pace brisk as it careens toward a cataclysmic ending. A bit of a slow beginning, this film is intense. Give it a "4."
© Terrence J. Brady
The ratings for "Pan & Scan" are broken down into a simple 1-5 scale as follows: 5 = "Forget renting it - BUY IT!"; 4 = "Definite Must Rent"; 3 = "Coin Toss" (Rent it OR wait for cable); 2 = "Wait For Cable"; 1 = "Ignore It!" (Even when it's on network TV).