Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Alan Ball
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards
The critically acclaimed debut of Sam Mendes, American Beauty features the mid-life crisis of a man trapped in a stale relationship. It is also one of my favorite black comedies (after Fight Club) and also is one of the most aggressive gay propaganda films ever made.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is stuck in a dead end job, while stuck in a dead end marriage where his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch) both hate him. What breaks Lester out of the catatonic state he is in is developing an infatuation for Jane's friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). This disgusts Jane, who at the same time is being stalked by the boy next door Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Ricky's parents are nearly as dysfunctional, his dad, Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is extremely paranoid and his mom, Barbara (Allison Janney) resembles the living dead. Further complicating matters is Carolyn, fed up with Lester's behaviour, starts having an affair with Buddy "The King" Kane (Peter Gallagher).
As I said at the beginning, this movie represents of one of the most aggressive gay propaganda films ever made. All of the usual stereotypes are completely reversed. That is any of the negative traits typically associated with queer characters, are given to the heterosexual ones.
All of the character who engages in straight behavior suffer from a variety of mental health issues, such as self loathing, body image problems, depression, paranoia, or are outright catatonic. These characters are also either repressed control freaks, shallow, vain, and self obsessed, engage in Nazi idolation, engage in abnormal behaviors such as the filming of dead birds and floating garbage, promote and express bigotry, and commit adultery, and that was just a list of the legal activities.
The illegal behaviors include an attempt at statutory (or what might be statutory) rape, the dealing and abuse of illegal drugs, driving while under the influence of those drugs, obsessive stalking, blackmail and extortion of an employer, prostitution, and tax fraud. And I have not even gotten started on the numerous characters that plot, discuss, and make plans to commit homicide that actually occurs.
Furthermore, both Jane and Ricky are also subjected to various forms of psychological, verbal, and even physical abuse at the hands of their heterosexual, adulterous, and murderous parents.
Meanwhile the gay couple, Jim and Jim (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards) is cheerfully normal, well adjusted, and more than willing to give exercise tips or deliver a "welcome to the neighborhood" basket to a new neighbor.
Otherwise, this an extremely well acted, superbly directed, smartly written flick. The cinematography, particularly the use of medium and close up shots, is noteworthy. There is not a technical element that is not executed perfectly.
The late 90's gave birth to a remarkable era of cinema. The year 1999 was particularly fertile. Magnolia, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Boys Don't Cry, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace were all released in that year. Some critics may argue that the last film does not belong, but I would not argue that American Beauty is the equal or better of all of them.
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