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American Beauty (1999)

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Directed by:

Sam Mendes

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 122 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18

On DVD

Country: United States

People, as we’re always being told, are not what they seem. Dr Jonathan Chase was one example – he was the lead character in a long-forgotten 1980s sci-fi series called ‘Manimal’, about a man who could turn into an animal. Just imagine that! Being able to transform into an animal! It would be brilliant.

‘American Beauty’ doesn’t quite work along those lines. In fact, I’ll come clean right now and say that there are practically no similarities between ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Manimal’ – other than the fact that it’s also about people who are other than what they seem.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) lives with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and 17-year-old daughter Jane (Thora Birch) in supposedly-idyllic suburbia. Sadly, none of them secretly possess the ability to morph into a badger, but that doesn’t mean any of them are all that they’d have the outside world believe: Lester is in the throes of midlife crisis and is on the verge of chucking in his job to concentrate on body-building and chasing teenage girlies; Carolyn has long since turned-off her hubby’s bedtime advances and instead seeks nookie from a local Real Estate legend (Peter Gallagher); Jane actually fancies the camcorder-clutching weirdo next door (Wes Bentley) who she at-first claims gives her the creeps.

This marvellously-performed middle-class drama marks an amazing feature-length debut from director Sam Mendes. It scooped four Oscars at the 2000 awards and was nominated for another three, and it’s not difficult to see why. Mendes displays a style behind the camera which is skilful and individual yet also discrete and unobtrusive – in other words, the sort of directorship that many of his more experienced peers would do well to learn from. Writer Alan Ball (I’m assured it’s not the squeaky-voiced English World Cup winner) delivers a sharp and witty screenplay, both thoughtful and accessible at the same time, and liberally peppered with dark humour. And then there’s the cast, of whom Spacey (in a role, incredibly, first-offered to Chevy Chase!) is the obvious stand-out, but also has Birch, Bening, Bentley and Chris Cooper all on top form.

If I had to fault the film – and it’s kind of my job, so I will – I’d say that Spacey’s voice-over isn’t only unnecessary, but actually serves as a wholly-unwelcome spoiler. I also dislike the ending as – without giving too much away (which is more than can be said for the narration) – it seems to detract from the whole point of the film. After all, there’s an embedded message that seemingly-normal families all over America are actually going through similar traumas, but that’s really not the case with the final event.

But, if you haven’t already seen ‘American Beauty’, you shouldn’t let such minor criticisms put you off doing so as soon as possible. This is a marvellous film serving to remind us all that no-one knows what goes on behind closed-doors: you never know, there might even be a doctor who can change himself into an elephant.

It's Got: Enough rose petals to satisfy several wedding ceremonies.

It Needs: The Royal treatment!

DVD Extras Director’s commentary, a featurette on Sam Mendes, film-to-script comparison, original trailers, production notes, storyboards, and cast/crew bios. Version reviewed: American Beauty DVD Extras Rating: 7/10

Summary

One of the best movies of the 90s. An absolute beauty.

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