Rating and Review:
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley and Chris Cooper
The theme behind "American Beauty" is interesting, but barely new. It succeeds because it does not preach, and instead relies on humor and cynicism. We are presented the picture of a perfect American family, and then the film moves on to rip the false harmony apart bit by bit, revealing the ugliness lurking underneath. All the characters in the film are trying hard to hide their problems, and the fact that everyone is doing so makes it impossible for them to stop pretending. This is one of the truest things that happen around us every day, and while we are saying to ourselves while watching the film "Jee... who would do such a thing?", we suddenly realize to our surprise that we have our own share of the same experience.
Imagine yourself in the shoes of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middleaged salesman who has just been sacked. Your wife Caroline (Annette Bening) wants everything in the house tidy and preferably in the same color. You haven't had sex with her for months, and she is secretly meeting another guy. But you cannot care less, because your soul has already been captured by your daughter's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), who seems to have attended one of those "Seduce and Destroy" seminars in "Magnolia". Meanwhile, things don't go too well between you and your daughter Jane (Thora Birch) too. She has not talked to you for days, and her boyfriend is a drug dealing neighbor (Wes Bentley) who looks like a weird Bible salesman.
Lester has the kind of life none of us would ever want to have. His story is gripping because it tells us the truth: life is not always as pleasant as we anticipate and most often than not, things tend to screw up in a chain reaction; a failed marriage and a change in company policies are all it takes. In the film, Lester desparately tries to find a way out, and Angela seems to have it. It may not be a smart move, but he goes for it because his wires are so messed up by now for any restraining mechanism to work. Naturally, things grow even worse in an almost automatic manner, just like they would in real life. At the end of the day, everything can be melted down to a matter of choice, and Lester has none.
Lester is certainly not the only one with problems in the film, it's just that everybody else are trying their best to pretend they are okay, and that makes it so hard to be normal when everybody look so perfect. While those around us always seem to be leading a better life, we often neglect the fact that most often than not, we see only our own problems and not those of others. We see happy families on TV, in bank commercials, and we never tell ourselves that they simply don't exist in real life, or at least not in large numbers. "American Beauty" gives us the magic formula to make life more enjoyable - by bearing in mind that everyone have their own dark problems.
The film is hilarious at the surface, but something dark is building up beneath all the fun, and that is what makes the film so remarkable. The lines are all neatly written, and their power further reinforced by Spacey's sense of irony and Bening's hysteria. Spacey is great, but I think it is Bening who steals the show, for she is able to bring Caroline's fragile self to life. The supporting cast is also great, though obviously not as good as our two leads.
There is no doubt that "American Beauty" is a funny film, but the moment when I left the cinema, I had this weird feeling that maybe one day I would find myself in the same position as Burnham's. What would I do then? This is the kind of questions we all think of sometimes, and we all choose not to answer, hoping that we don't need to in the future. "American Beauty" is great because it makes us think about them again.
© Marcus Chan 2001