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American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty is a 1999 American drama film directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. Kevin Spacey stars as office worker Lester Burnham, who has a midlife crisis when he becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter's best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Annette Bening co-stars as Lester's materialistic wife, Carolyn, and Thora Birch plays their insecure daughter, Jane; Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper and Allison Janney also feature. The film has been described by academics as a satire of American middle class notions of beauty and personal satisfaction; analysis has focused on the film's explorations of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, beauty, materialism, alienation, self-liberation and redemption. Ball began writing American Beauty as a play in the early 1990s, partly inspired by the media circus around the Amy Fisher trial in 1992. He shelved the play after realizing the story would not work on stage. After several years as a television screenwriter, Ball revived the idea in 1997 when attempting to break into the film industry. The modified script had a cynical outlook that was influenced by Ball's frustrating tenures writing for several sitcoms.
American Beauty chronicles the last year in the life of 42 year-old hack magazine writer Lester Burnham (Spacey), a suburban loser that has just about had it with his humdrum life and decides to make a few changes to regain control, for better or for worse. Those changes include quitting his job and blackmailing his employers, buying a vintage Firebird, taking a new job at the local fast food joint, buying thousands of dollars worth of pot, and plotting to sleep with his daughter's best friend (Suvari, the good girl from American Pie, playing the bad girl here).
If you think he's gone over the edge, wait until you get a load of his Realtor wife (Bening, playing an evil Martha Stewart - okay, a more evil Martha Stewart). Or the daughter (Birch), a zoned-out basket of angst. Or their neighbors, headed by a stern ex-Marine (Cooper) and his pleasant but quietly psychotic drug-dealer son (Bentley). Everyone here is a creep, and it's delicious to watch them play off one another - think of it as an updating of The Ice Storm to 1999.
The joy of Beautylies in its brilliantly drawn characters, great dialogue, flawless acting by all the players, and a clever voice-over by Spacey that, for once, adds quite a bit to the picture. For example, we're told at the beginning that Lester is going to die. While the black comedy unfolds for two hours, we struggle to figure out exactly how he's going to go. Obviously, someone is going to kill him. But who, and how? The genius of the script is that it could be anyone who does it.
Oscar nominations are deserved universally for the cast and crew, and I hope American Beautyis neither forgotten at Awards time nor at the box office. This is a rare and outstanding film that deserves attention and will challenge some heady competition for a place as the best film of the year.
Suvari on high.