American Beauty (1999)

4/5

USA; Sam Mendes


Mature Audiences – Strong Language; Brief Strong Bloody Violence; Sexuality


“This is your life and it's ending one minute at a time.” Does it ring a bell? Fight Club’s nerdy nameless white-collar could have been named Lester Burnham. Lester (Kevin Spacey) is a sad-faced, insignificant suburban husband and father teetering on the verge of nervous breakdown as he reaches a mid-point in life. In a fit of pique, he decides to turn his hectic life around after developing an infatuation for his daughter’s glamorous best friend. Reveling in the refreshing recklessness of his new-found courage, Lester is too engrossed with his own rebellion to realize – or give a damn – that things are fatally downspiraling around him.

American Beauty ostensibly wants to be more than the latest cannonball of the darkly comedic onslaught on American middle class morality and lifestyle, but does it rise to its considerable contradictions? Walking a mighty fine line between comedy and tragedy, it is traditional in its content but ingeniously modern in its form. It is, at heart, a familiar story smartly told by a bitter and yet compulsively witty voice-over, but the sole pleasure the narrative arc has to offer is the merciless stripping of a bourgeois façade to expose a tangle of rotten, moth-eaten beams. How long can this trick us into submission?

If American Beauty remains such a gripping and high-voltage cinematic experience, it is largely owing to Kevin Spacey deadpan performance, seething with bitter, abrasive wit, which grows increasingly exhilarating and devilishly unrestrained as the film progresses. The character ultimately melts in a heightened and surreal erotic climax, crowning the ensemble with an outburst of luminous, generous serenity that feel so intimate and heartfelt it won’t leave you cold.

American Beauty won’t disappoint you. It is a high-octane, seething picture channeled by a nervous and implausibly magnetic central presence and a highly addictive brand of bitter, yet rich humor. But it won’t surprise you either. 

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