American Beauty

dir. sam mendes
wri. alan ball
st. kevin spacey, annette bening, peter gallagher

Although primarily an essay on the nature of beauty in this modern world where we are all dispossessed in some way or another, American Beauty also resembles Todd Solondz's Happiness. Both dissect the dysfunctionality of a suburbia that we all fear and secretly hope for. After all, as the American Beauty herself points out, anything is better than being ordinary, even if that means being the most fucked up you can be. Beauty dumbs down and glamourizes this stygian pit of neuroses and their hypernormal fašades, but succeeds where Happiness fails. By separating each idea, director Mendes crystallizes these thoughts. They become tangible where Happiness' minute by minute provocation of emotional melanges was too distancing. Its characters are too inhuman. They lack any form of self-analysis or insight, and although characters in both movies have their flaws carefully catalogued, those in Beauty find in their miserable existences transcendent beauty and hope in the most unlikely places rather than wallowing in their paraphilias and mental problems. For narrator Lester Burnham fantasies of her daughter's underage friend Angela provide spiritual succour. Angela in turn makes-believe in her own sexual magnetism to hide her inner feelings of ordinariness. After all it is ordinariness, or at least the drive towards ordinariness that is the real killer in the world of American Beauty. As Lester puts it, life is not meant to be "a commercial for how normal we are" especially when "we're anything but". When Lester expires it is not with any melodramatic preaching or crappy diem moral. There is a perverse element of joy in his death; at least Lester managed to die completely happy. It's like salvation via midlife crisis. Mendes manages to paint other complex emotions broadly from his palette, probably finely honed from years of theatre direction, crossing from pity for the fucked up Colonel Fitz, to the flush of first love between Ricky Fitz and Jane Burnham.

Wes Bentley's unusually mature performance as Ricky Fitz steals much of the show, acting as an anchor for the film's title. His character deals with a psychotically abusive father by capturing scenes of beauty on digital video, and his monologues on the nature of beauty are achingly sincere if irritatingly incomplete. Like artist Jeffrey Smart, he does not buy into the pretense of the old - perfect lawn, perfect house, perfect picket fence. Instead, the digital camera that he uses as a pseudopod, a sensory appendage allows him to compile a sizeable library of poignant moments regardless of origin or morbid overtones. Bentley also looks like Joaquim Phoenix, which never hurts. Neither do novelty photo shoots in Premiere.

Although classically an American teenager in that he's actually about 25 years old playing a just-pubescent 16 year old, Fitz is one of those accomplished teenagers that even your parents hate. Ricky, Jane and Angela (how's that for some archetypical nomenclature) are semi-realist reflections of today's ultrasavvy teenagers and of the movie itself -incredibly beautiful and superficially intelligent but lacking just that tailend of true moral philosophy.

Huan-Tzin Goh
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Adam Rivett's thinks American Beauty is "an artier version of Prozac".

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