Saturday, April 14, 2007
American Beauty; drama, USA, 1999; D: Sam Mendes, S: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher
Lester Burnham is a 42-year old advertising executive who is entering mid-life crisis and hates his average job. He is also a depressive husband who is neither loved by his wife Carolyn nor by his bitter daughter Jane. One day he meets Jane's friend, the cheerleader Angela, and falls in love with her. He changes, quitting his job and starting consuming marijuana bought from his neighbor Ricky, a teenager who is also starting a relationship with Jane. Carolyn is at the same time starting an affair with a wealthy real estate seller, while Ricky's military father Frank Fitts kisses Lester, revealing himself to be gay. As Lester finds out Angela is still a virgin, he decides to give up n her, but is soon killed by Frank from a gun, ending contemplating about his life.
"American Beauty" is a bitter story about what happens when people suppress their feelings and desires. It's a truly perfect example of a bipolar movie in which humor and sharp dialogues create laughter and pleasure on one side of the brain - in the opening shots the main hero is narrating: "My name is Lester Burnham. I'm 42 years old. In a year I'll be dead. Of course, I still don't know that yet", while he is shown waking up in his bed, obviously paying a homage to Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" - while the exaggerated and not so subtle dramatic elements create tragedy on the other half, but at the same time it seems as if the film starts out as an gentle, clever and thoughtful story only to transform into a tedious melodrama filled with senseless subplots (for example, Frank's sudden gay side) and mind blowing pretentious elements (when Lester is first seen masturbating in the shower, the thing is still done tastefully, but when he is shown jerking off under the blanket in the same bed with his wife the whole thing becomes distasteful and trashy, and the scene where a plastic bag is carried by the breeze is simply stupid) that seem to come from a soap opera.
Compared to better existential films about depressed protagonists, like Kiarostami's beautifully calm and wise drama "Taste of Cherry", "American Beauty" does not seem mature enough for its themes. Alan Ball's screenplay is sharp, and shows a genuine 6th sense for some inspired dialogues (in one instance, Angela is teasing Jane who is staring at Ricky, saying that she wants to have "10 000 of his babies"), but the uneven result is there because the execution of the idea from the first time director Sam Mendes is problematic and flawed, equipped with awful music and video spot style, going everywhere, especially in the confusingly metaphysical end. Likewise, some moments just scream of a "deleted scene" (as it was not obvious already that the militaristic Frank is the bad guy, there is an unnecessary scene where it is revealed he has plates with a swastika on them, in a very transparent intention indeed). It seems the story would have been much better if it was just revolving around Lester and Angela alone. In the end, "American Beauty" is a good film, but it is a clever story just not done in a harmonious way, and these aberrations sadly contaminate it.