American Beauty explores darker side of affluence

Published November 1, 1999

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is enjoying the changes he has made in his life, to the complete exasperation of his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), in DreamWorks Pictures’ American Beauty.

IF YOU’RE EASILY offended, find frank discussions and depictions of sexuality hard to deal with, or watch only family oriented movies, then American Beauty is not a film for you. But if you’re interested in an exploration of the dark side of affluence in North American suburban life, in a biting satire laced with an absence of and longing for spirituality, then this critically acclaimed film directed by Sam Mendes from an original script by Alan Ball is a must see.

With stunning but highly mannered performances by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, American Beauty focuses on the life of a family in an unnamed suburb in somewhere U.S.A. Lester Burnham (Spacey) is a 42-year-old whose life has come to mean nothing. Bored in a job, isolated within his marriage, every day for him goes downhill after the refreshment of his morning shower.

His wife Carolyn (Bening) has the energy of a Martha Stewart on amphetamines: she’s a successful and ambitious real-estate salesperson, focused on her career and enjoying her suburban home, the high-priced furniture and her Mercedes Benz SUV.

Their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is an unhappy teen, who describes her father’s leering glances at her girlfriend as “gross,” and although surrounded by creature comforts, is fundamentally unhappy and insecure. When they’re at the dinner table, director Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L Hall capture an American Gothic horror ? all the beauty that money can buy, but no relationship, no communication, no intimacy, no home.

Into this neighbourhood comes a new family with a teenage son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who sees the world through his video camera. He’s a strange kid with a history of mental illness, he’s the local drug dealer, his father’s a retired marine captain who’s never really left the corps and his mother’s virtually catatonic, drugged or depressed, or maybe both (it’s hard to tell). It’s another dysfunctional family, but when Ricky turns Lester on to drugs, promising him a natural high “without the paranoia,” a relationship develops between the two families that leads to this film’s tragic and horrific conclusion.

The interplay between the narrative of this film and Ricky’s videos is brilliant. While the film is shot in gleaming colour, with highly structured settings, Ricky’s videos are grainy, yet the world he captures on videotape contains “an entire life behind things.” He alone senses the unbearable beauty of the world.

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American Beauty

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening

**** (out of five)

Warning: coarse language and sexually explicit scenes.

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The rest of the characters seem caught in a world that should please and delight ? all the comforts and luxuries of life are there ? but they’re only marginally alive, caught in the illusion that success plus affluence will produce happiness. There’s little happiness here.

“In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times,” preaches the other main character, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), a super-successful real estate salesman and the object of Carolyn’s infidelity. This is the nightmare of social Darwinism: the fittest survive, the weaker perish.

In the neighbourhood live another couple, wildly successful in their careers, gay but equally unconnected with anyone. Of all the lives depicted, the only real beauty comes from Ricky’s video of a plastic bag being gently tossed by the wind, in a delicate dance with the falling leaves. It is beautiful to be sure, and somewhere, beneath the banality of these lives there must be beauty also.

There is. You know from the start this is the story of Lester’s last days. When the end comes, rather than slide into the abyss of nihilism, Lester takes the viewers to a perspective beyond the confines of this time. As the theatre lights come up, you wonder how you might connect more deeply, love more fully or notice the beauty and life behind things.

Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.


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