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American Beauty

  indeed he does rule
Kevin Spacey shows Annette Bening how he's going to accept the Oscar.

1999, Dreamworks
All Rights Reserved

If I had seen this film before taking that class on "Modern Political Thought," I would have gotten an A. "American Beauty" (IMDb listing) is a full frontal assault on modernity; an attack on suburbia, on the middle class, middle America, middle income, middle management world we inhabit."American Beauty" is a powerful social commentary, delineating a stereotypically perfect world, only to tear it apart, to rip it to shreds with its blunt criticism and harsh judgements. It does everything all those post-Modernist philosophers from Hegel to Marx to Nietzsche tried to do, but unlike the great Continental thinkers, American Beauty didn't put me to sleep.

The story revolves around Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), husband, and father of one. He hates his job and his life, his family thinks he's a loser and he's hard pressed to disagree. Inside the Burnham's picture-perfect house on Any Street, USA, life is anything but picture perfect. Spacey is phenomenal as Burnham. His dour expressions, deadpan delivery and his perfectly timed sarcastic smiles and sycophantic quips make him the everyman that post-Modernists bemoaned; a slave to his job, he's a cog in the capitalist machine, isolated, alienated, and merely walking through life, as opposed to living it.

Lester is married to an absolute shrew of a woman, Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening); superficial, materialistic and obsessed with projecting an image of success, from her career as a real estate agent to her perfect house and rose garden (take that, Martha Stewart!). Any vestiges of a personality have been surgically removed and she struggles to live up to the image that she projects. Bening is positively stunning in the role of Carolyn, she's so convincingly unlikable and yet, by the end, you can even sympathize with her character and her misguided attempts at self improvement and her obsession with perfection.

These two dysfunctional parents do a heck of a job distorting their impressionable teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), remarkable only in her ability to be a stereotypical teenager, replete with angst and rebellion. The world is a simple place for Jane, who has yet to see the shades of gray between the simple, idealized black and white in her perception. You can't help but identify with her innocence as she struggles with the knowledge that her mother is a superficial witch and her father is a dirty old man.

Much care is taken to give the characters the serious flaws that would make you want to despise them, but in spite of yourself, you can't hate any of them for their infidelity, their selfishness, their shallowness, their materialism and their shortsightedness. You find someone to identify with in this film. In them, you see both the good and the bad, frailty and strength. Bening and Spacey, especially, pour themselves into their characters, creating real people, not merely two-dimensional cutouts. These characters, despite the stereotypes and the social commentary's almost Technicolor presentation of reality, hit home.

The most grounded, most insightful character in the film is the boy-next-door, Ricky Fitz (Wes Bentley). His schoolboy crush on Jane manifests itself in his creepy habit of filming everything. Eventually, he establishes himself as something other than a stalker who "dresses like a Bible salesman." He sees life the way few others can. He knows about the ugliness, the superficiality, and yet finds so much beauty in the world. He wins Jane's affection and Lester's friendship, becoming Jane's boyfriend and Lester's marijuana supplier. Bentley's portrayal of Ricky is disturbingly real. His detached manner of dealing with his intolerant, antagonistic military father (Chris Cooper) and poignant interactions with his mother (Allison Janney), a woman who exists in a catatonic daze, give the audience a brief glimpse of a complex and thoughtful character.

Mena Survari plays Angela, Jane's best friend and the subject of Lester's psychosexual fantasies. In true youthful harlot form, she manipulates Lester's lustful thoughts. Suvari's character is alternately annoying and prophetic; so many of the characters find themselves reacting to her. She triggers Lester's midlife crisis and his defiance of suburbia's sacred rules. No matter how much you want to detest him for his infatuation with a 16-year-old girl, you still find yourself cheering for him as he "sticks it to the man;" quitting his job, blackmailing his boss, buying a '71 Firebird, and proclaiming "I rule!"

Like I said before, this is the stuff those dreary philosophers wrote incessantly about, but whereas Hegel is likely to bore and stupefy most readers, this film has the power to speak to its audience on a personal and visceral level. "American Beauty" forces the viewer to examine more closely his or her own life, and while it takes suburbia to task on many different issues, the purpose of the film isn't just to tear down the pretty facade of modern life in our minds, but also to allow for the building in its place, a greater understanding of what is truly beautiful in the world around us. After two hours of cynicism, sarcasm and irreverence, Lester Burnham gives us his first genuine smile upon hearing that his daughter is in love. He pronounces simply "I'm happy for her," and in a testament to Spacey's skill, we can see that peaceful look of contentment on Lester's face when he realizes that his little girl is happy. In that moment, he is able to find the good in a world that he's spent so much time rejecting. Even in a society that espouses so many values that he hates, in a world that has destroyed so many of the people around him, he can find the beauty.

Filmfodder Grade: A+

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