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American Beauty (1999)

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening,

Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari,

Chris Cooper, Allison Janney

Director: Sam Mendes

Screenwriter: Alan Ball

Composer: Thomas Newman

Cinematographer: Conrad Hall

Editor: Tariq Anwar, Christopher Green


Price: Rs. 499

It takes an outsider to make a film on the culture and social norms of a country. Just like it took the Taiwanese Ang Lee to make the very American “Ice Storm” and “Brokeback Mountain” and the British Danny Boyle for a different perspective of post-liberalisation India with “Slumdog Millionaire,” British director Sam Mendes turns the mirror on American suburbia with devastating effect in “American Beauty”.

Cheerleaders, teenage angst, music, drugs, homophobia, midlife crisis, real estate brokers, obsession with appearances, incest, and materialism among other things are put under the magnifying glass in this brilliantly-written film.

In the beginning of the film we meet Lester Burnham who tells us he “is 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don't know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.”

The film tells the events of that life-changing year for the Burnhams. Lester hates his job in an advertising agency while his wife, Caroline, a real estate broker, obsesses about appearances. Their daughter, Jane, is 16 and in Lester's words “a pretty typical teenager. Angry, insecure, confused.”

Lester's life changes when he gets infatuated with Jane's friend, Angela. The Fitts family moving next door also proves a catalyst. While Col. Fitts is all about discipline, his son, Ricky, smokes pot and is a drug dealer. Lester meets Ricky at a party and realises he is living a pointless life. He quits his job, with the most inventive resignation letter in the movies, listens to music, asserts himself, starts smoking pot and working out.

There are changes in others' life too. Jane discovers love with Ricky and she realises it is alright to be different. The radiantly-beautiful Angela faces facts about herself. Lester tries to tell Caroline not to obsess about material things but she learns the true value of people tragically late.

Critics and movie goers have been divided about what the movie is about — if it is a coming-of-age movie, a love story, a comedy, a tragedy, a mystery, an allegory or a satire. The beauty of the film is it is all this and more.

“American Beauty” is very funny, acutely observed, allegorical and poignant with a host of heart-breaking love stories. In spite of its horrific ending, “American Beauty” is, in the final count optimistic about the uplifting power of beauty, of being able to see aching beauty and god in the most common place of things — including a floating plastic bag. Every one of its five academy awards are well deserved — from best actor for Kevin Spacey to best director for Mendes, film, cinematography for Conrad Hall and most definitely for Alan Ball for original screenplay.

The movie sparkles with incisive dialogue. When Angela says: “I don't think there is anything worse than being ordinary,” it reveals her insecurities in a telling manner. Then there is Ricky's paean to beauty when he says: “It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things… Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in.”

The cast, from Spacey as Burnham to Annette Bening (Caroline), Thora Birch (Jane) Wes Bentley (Ricky), Mena Suvari (Angela) to Chris Cooper (Col Fitts) is brilliant.

“American Beauty”, which was hailed by critics at the time of its release, had a backlash of criticism with it making it to the list of most overrated films. However, the film has aged well and stands up today too as an extraordinarily honest dissertation on the American way of life. While on the cover, the extras listed included storyboards with commentary by Mendes and Hall, the DVD only had a making-of-featurette with revealing interviews by the cast and crew.

The title of the movie comes from a breed of roses which are perfect on the outside while rotten underneath and echoes the themes and tagline of the film — “look closer.”

The movie has, unfortunately, been censored quite senselessly with a crucial scene being lopped off and so the DVD is not the best way to approach the movie for the first time.





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