#40: American Beauty [1999]

It's hardly surprising when you look into the production of this film, that many of the key figures behind its conception were involved in the theatre industry. Sam Mendes directed it (yes, he did just direct Skyfall too) and Alan Ball provided the script. In fact, American Beauty had been the latter's baby for a few years, as his bid to burst onto the Hollywood scene. It seems to have worked, well for this film anyway. Ball still writes primarily for TV, but True Blood fans won't complain.
So, what's all the fuss over this film? You've most probably heard of it, and even if not you're sure to recognise the now iconic image of Mena Suvari lying naked on a bed of rose petals, a few scant pieces covering her modesty and falling about her. Well, much of the spell is to do with that feeling that you can't quite place, but you know that you're watching a really well-made film. That sounds so inadequate, but what I'm getting as is the sense that you're in good hands; just let it unfold. I mean, I could go on about the visual style etc, but that's something you have to see and feel for yourself - its the effect rather than the idea in itself which is so impressive. There's an unplaceable emptiness about it all - well, how do you 'place' emptiness anyway? Sure, there's a tension towards the end, but much of what we feel is actually various absences: of communication, empathy, fulfillment.
Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, who is in the midst of a rather successful mid-life crisis. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch) despise him, and he really does cut a pathetic figure at the beginning of the film. It all seems to change when he meets and smokes weed with his daughter's new (and creepy) boyfriend, their new neighbour Ricky (Wes Bentley - the creepiness is in his incorrectly-coloured eyes). Lester embarks on a self-liberation mission, which seems mainly an attempt to impress his daughter's impossibly hot friend Angela (Suvari). 
I find Lester increasingly likeable as the film, and his journey of self-discovery, progresses. I suppose a lot of this is due directly to Spacey, who captures the nuances of the character perfectly. But, his wife Annette is perpetually infuriating, in her pathetic attempts to be controlling and callous. In reality, she's just failing to live the American Dream, just like everyone else. And that's the centre of the film really - it's not an especially new idea, the inherent fakeness of American materialist society. But still, it's done rather stylishly. 

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