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      American Beauty
    Don't try this at home

    Kevin Spacey's character makes all the wrong moves in "American Beauty," a dark and disturbing black comedy with an almost painful emphasis on the black part.


    Over the years, Kevin Spacey has delighted in playing louses: charming men with hearts as black as pitch. In his latest film, Spacey is more a loser than a louse, but his Lester Burnham still maintains some unpleasant, creepy-crawly qualities.

    For 14 years Lester has been a writer for a crappy media magazine. He's married, unhappily, to Carolyn (Annette Bening), an aspiring realtor who lives the image of success even though she's not really all that good at selling houses. The Burnhams have a teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), but neither of them really knows her. Lester, bitter and unfulfilled at 42, hates his job, which is just as well because he's about to lose it.

    Directed by: Sam Mendez.
    Written by: Alan Ball.
    Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper.

    Related links: Official site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
    And, as Spacey's narration informs us at the beginning of the film, he's not going to make it to 43 either. That admission sets the scene for American Beauty, a dark and disturbing black comedy with an almost painful emphasis on the black part. It's a film that revels in the decay and disharmony of suburbia; there are moments when you think to yourself "things are going to get ugly" before realizing that things have been interminable from the outset.

    Lester's life is spiraling out of control; unhappiness reigns supreme. Then Jane brings home a cheerleading girlfriend one night and it's lust at first sight (since Carolyn isn't exactly meeting Lester's needs in that department). Lester begins to fantasize about Angela (Mena Suvari) who, of course, is young enough to be his daughter. Meanwhile, a camcorder-obsessed boy called Ricky Fitts moves in next door and takes a shine to Jane, offering to get rid of Lester as a token of his affection (his father, played by Chris Cooper, is a bigoted Marine who requires urine samples from his son every six months to ensure that he's drug-free).

      There are moments when you think to yourself "things are going to get ugly" before realizing that things have been interminable from the outset.
    It's not immediately clear whether Ricky (played with stone-cold credulity by Wes Bentley) is kidding, but as Alan Ball's not very pretty screenplay unfolds, events soon begin to take more chilling turns.

    The strength of the acting in American Beauty keeps everything on the edge, with Spacey especially good as the frustrated Lester. Former Broadway director Sam Mendes makes his big-screen debut with this film, and it's a good one. There are times when "American Beauty" feels like it might be toppling over into melodrama, but Mendes grabs the reins and reels his actors in, generating power and a lot of perspiration in the process.

    American Beauty. Life is no bed of roses.

    OCTOBER 1, 1999

    Reader comments on American Beauty:

  • Loved it!!!!!!!!!   from Crystal, Apr 8, 2001

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