Movie Review: American Beauty

Not since December 1 have I written a movie review. Reviews kept getting pushed off. This, however, is one I have to talk about, but first, why American Beauty?

I’ve read a couple lists from my blogging friends such as “Top Ten DiCaprio Movies” or “Ten Movies I Need to See” and have loved reading them. Yet, as many movies as I’ve watched, there are still so many that I haven’t seen, leaving my tastes somewhat limited. Something I want to do to fix that is watch all of the films that have won Best Picture.

There have been 86 Academy Awards and 86 Best Picture winners and there’ll be another film tacked on to that list in February.

One of the reasons I want to do this is because it seems impossible to see every great movie in a lifetime. Maybe I’m wrong, but there are just so many. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen a film before 1960 aside from The Wizard of Oz, meaning I’m missing some fantastic films. I’ve stuck mostly to the late 70’s to current.

As I scroll through the list, starting in 1927, the first film I recognize is Gone With the Wind in 1939, followed by Casablanca (1943) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956).

The earliest Best Picture I’ve seen is The Sound of Music (1965), but I hardly remember it at all, so I’ll need to revisit it. Below are some others I’ve been able to cross off the list. To see all the Best Picture winners, click on the Best Picture page.

The Sound of Music (1965), Midnight Cowboy (69), One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (75), Rocky (76), The Silence of the Lambs (91), Schindler’s List (93), Forrest Gump (94), Braveheart (95), Titanic (97), Gladiator (2000), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (03), Slumdog Millionaire (08), Argo (12).

Now, why American Beauty? Kevin Spacey is one of my favorite actors, that’s why. Breaking out as John Doe in Seven, Spacey starred as Roger “Verbal” Kint in The Usual Suspects, a role that won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Spacey also had a commanding role opposite Samuel L. Jackson in one of my favorite films, 1998’s The Negotiator. That same year he did the voice of Hopper, the antagonist in Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, before portraying Lester Burnham in American Beauty in 1999, a film that was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Kevin Spacey’s first Best Actor Oscar.

I haven’t seen any of his films but rest assured I intend to. What I have seen is House of Cards, easily one of the best television shows on right now. Under the mask of a conniving politician, Kevin Spacey murders, cheats, lies and manipulates nearly everyone around him in his quest to gain the Oval Office. Political dramas have never seemed so flawless, at least to me, as House of Cards does. If you haven’t seen it, I insist you do. You don’t want to miss this, trust me.

Now, to the film itself.

Lester Burnham is a huge weasel who hates his life and everyone hates him. Not because Lester’s a bad guy, but because he’s such an embarrassment. He’s a huge klutz, excels at creating awkward situations and let’s not forget purposeless. The film begins with Lester admitting he’s masturbating in the shower and how it’s all downhill from there. That’s how much of a loser Lester is.

Lester has no friends. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a real estate agent and his daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), hates him. She views him as a nuisance, the awkward figure in her life that she wish would disappear.

As if that’s not enough, Carolyn is disgusted with her husband, too. He’s detrimental to her professional image, an image that must be as precise and correct as possible, only furthering her need, no, her requirement, to control everything.

When Carolyn drags Lester to their daughter’s dance routine at a high school basketball game, Lester becomes sexually infatuated with one of Jane’s friends, Angela Hayes. He dreams of her on a bed of roses and overhears one of their conversations, hearing Angela say she’d sleep with him if he bulked up a little. Using that as motivation, Lester starts living. For a long time, Lester wasn’t living. He was just going through the motions, but now he’s doing what he wants to do and he doesn’t care who says he can’t. The theme of entrapment is what’s going on in American Beauty‘s introduction. He’s been caged by his manipulative wife and now he’s free.

Carolyn isn’t a terrible person, but she’s just so controlling that it ruins everyone around her. She has an agenda and plays her cards and pieces accordingly. Her manipulation is a depressant to every situation.

A subplot blossoms when Colonel Frank Fitts and his son Ricky move into the neighborhood. The colonel is homophobic and like Carolyn, demonstrates a requirement to control life’s proceedings. His son Ricky is odd, with a stare that seems to penetrate your soul and he’s always carrying a video camera around, at one point taping Jane through a window.

American Beauty‘s writing is truly beautiful, creating unique characters and at times transporting our perception of some of these characters to the other side of the spectrum. The prime example is Lester Burnham, who exacts a precise and pervasive change to his life and to himself. He’s not pretending he’s someone else, nor was he pretending to be someone else before, but he was caged in a free world. Watching Lester remove the chains and exude the confidence that’s been bottled up for quite a while is both refreshing and hilarious, because with his new-found confidence he acts and voices exactly what he thinks of you. Lester isn’t just removing the boundaries of his wife and daughter, he’s getting rid of everything, societal constraints included.

The acting doubles the writing’s effect on audiences, as Kevin Spacey is sure to blow your mind in this Best Actor performance. The theme of entrapment is a quality character dilemma, but the choice of your actor/actress is integral to its effectiveness. Even though we only see Lester as a dweeb for a short amount of time, we know he’s a dweeb. There’s no doubt in our minds. If Spacey didn’t convince us of this fact, then the character change isn’t as fulfilling. It would still succeed, but not at the incredible standard that it does.

Every character serves a purpose, even the Colonel’s wife. While it’s never explicitly stated, Ricky’s mom shows symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s. This would explain Ricky’s fascination with taping everything, so he can remember, but in the film’s best piece of writing, Ricky explains himself:

“It was one of those days where it’s a minute away from snowing…and there’s this electricity in the air. You can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just…dancing with me… like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid…ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know, but it helps me remember. I need to remember. Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

This monologue sets the tone for the overall film, although the tone begins much earlier than the introduction of this speech. Alan Ball’s script sticks to a positive perspective of life throughout the film, running the subhead “Look Closer” into as many crevices as he can. One example of this, one that I missed during my viewing, is at the beginning of the film when Lester is at work. His face is reflected off his computer monitor, which is showing seven vertical lines of numbers, giving the image of Lester behind a jail cell. Even though I missed it initially, that is some fantastic camerawork right there, using the lens to drive the purpose.

Life is given such a bad rap by the entertainment industry. Of course, with all the examples the people of the world give them, it’s hard to ignore. However, Ball includes those perceptions in his film as well in Lester’s wife Carolyn. The battle of “life is good” and “life is bad” is performed through the contrast of Lester and Carolyn, as demonstrated by yet another great piece of writing from Ball:

Carolyn: Lester you’re going to spill beer on the couch.

Lester: So what? It’s just a couch.

Carolyn: This is a 4000 dollar sofa upholstered in Italian silk. This is not just a couch.

Lester: It’s just a couch! This isn’t life. This is just stuff and it’s become more important to you than living. Well honey, that’s just nuts.

Once again, if you’re new to my blog, I’ve always ranked movies on a scale of 0-100 (I don’t know why, I just always have). Here’s the grading scale.  

90-100  It’s a great movie and definitely one worth buying. (Gone GirlMulanGuardians of the GalaxyDawn of the Planet of the ApesTransformers: Age of Extinction)

80-89   It was a pretty good movie and definitely one worth seeing, but it doesn’t quite scratch my top ten percentile. (The Cabin in the WoodsTears of the SunEdge of TomorrowThe Amazing Spider-Man 2Young Guns)

70-79   It’s okay but I’ve seen better. It has its moments, but it has its flaws, too.(SnowpiercerThe FamilyWhen the Game Stands TallBlack Hawk DownRed Dawn(2012))

60-69   It’s got plenty wrong with it but I still got enjoyment out of this one. (House at the End of the StreetThe RavenDead SnowRubberHansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters)

50-59   This movie isn’t intolerable but it’s not blowing my mind either. I’m trying really hard to get some sort of enjoyment out of this. (ZoolanderThe Expendables 3HomefrontG.I. Joe: RetaliationVantage Point)

40-49   This movie is just mediocre. It’s not doing anything other than the bare minimal, so morbidly boring that sometimes I’m actually angry I watched this. (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesBilly MadisonA Haunted House300: Rise of an Empire)

30-39   Definitely worse than mediocre, the 30′s ironically define the 1930′s, full of depression, lack of accomplishments, poverty and just so dumb. (CenturionPlanet of the ApesStonadosRedemptionPride and Prejudice)

20-29   What did I just watch? Cliches, stupidity, nothingness, did I mention stupidity? Just…wow. (The GreyX-Men: Days of Future PastThor: The Dark WorldThe Sum of All Fears)

0-19      Watching this movie resulted in one or more of the following: seizure, loss of brain cells, falling asleep/unconsciousness, feel you wasted your time/day, accomplished nothing for you, left the movie knowing less about it then you did going into it, constantly asking yourself why you came to see this movie, or near-death experience. In short, staring at a wall was just as entertaining as watching this movie. This movie deserved a sticker or a label that said, “WARNING: EXTREME AMOUNT OF SUCKAGE.” (SabotageGallowwalkersTucker & Dale vs. EvilSafeWatchmen)

My score for American Beauty: 98.

1998’s American Beauty succeeds at making life beautiful through some award-winning cinematography, screenwriting from Alan Ball and first-rate acting from all parties involved. I loved the way it entwined itself with the lives of the audience and made its subplots formidable enough that they could be a plot all by themselves if they wanted to. I strongly recommend you watch American Beauty and remember: Look Closer.

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