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Don't Look Too Deep Into American Beauty
A review of American Beauty
by J. D. Rummel

This is a very well made film that can't rise above well-trodden ground. It might have been great had it dared to really tackle issues as opposed to offering us clichéd and easy to recognize themes. American Beauty is not so much thought provoking as it is Plug 'n Play film viewing.

Director: Sam Mendes

Stars: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley

Rating: R

Release: 09-15-1999

Time: 118 minutes

Buy Movie at The story is told by the late Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) a magazine writer whose perfect appearing life is in the crapper. Lester is married to Carolyn (Annette Benning) and there isn't seven cents worth of happiness between the two of them. Both hate their jobs, and their daughter Jane is so embarrassed by them that she never smiles throughout the entire film. The story highlights the dissolution of their lives mainly by focusing on Lester's dissatisfaction and attempts to restore his vitality, but it often side-tracks into the lives of Jane, Carolyn and Ricky Fitts the dope dealing, scarred but got-it-together son of the homophobic Marine cliché who lives next door.

When the film succeeds it is because of captivating cinematography, art direction and actors that manage to breathe life into the characters even when reading lines like: "There is so much beauty in the world I can't stand it."

However, the script and message do not bear close examination. Too often the stereotype is given to us because we recognize it, but no attempt is made to explain why something became what it did. Instead, we are supposed to merely accept it. Yes, the Burnhams have a dried out marriage, but why? The solution is clear enough for us: smoke expensive weed, listen to Pink Floyd and either lust after a cheerleader (I'm there!) or in the case of Mrs. Burnham, bed the competition.

If sophomoric solutions to serious questions aren't enough, another major flaw is its cliched portrayal of adults and children. Young people, the film would have us believe, have a better grasp on the truth than their parents who have been corrupted by a pursuit of financial security and social position. As such, the children in this film all have bad relationships with the parental units because the parents are either complete dolts or mentally deranged. Sadly, this film appears to have been marketed as a teen flick a la American Pie, as my audience had many young people that laughed at serious moments. I presume this is because teen flicks routinely reduce complex human pain to joke fodder and that audience is primed to burst into laughter.

There are also some editing issues. Inexplicably, we are shown Scott Bakula and Sam Robards as two gay next door neighbors, but they have almost no dramatic reason to appear in this film. Also pointless are the nude shots (as a Manly Man I enjoyed them, and may look for them on the Internet, but they did not serve this film).

Some people have raved about American Beauty. I suspect it fooled them into believing it was "deep."