Review: American, but far from beautiful

Ten minutes into American Beauty, real estate agent Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) bursts into tears after a frustrating day trying to sell a suburban house. Trying to choke off her sobs, she slaps herself viciously in the face. "You weakling," she grinds out, "you don't cry."
American Beauty is full of scenes like this, snapshots of stifled emotions and balked desires. Hero Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a suburban ad rep trapped in a soul-destroying job; his wife is obsessed with her professional image and motivational pop-psychology, while his sullen daughter Jane (Thora Birch) seethes with adolescent resentments and insecurities. The characters, like most of the viewers they play to, yearn for an emotional fulfilment not to be found in a dead-end job or a loveless marriage. If the Burnham family is not entirely beautiful, it is unmistakably American.

American Beauty

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Rating: 8 out of 10

Ten minutes into American Beauty, real estate agent Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) bursts into tears after a frustrating day trying to sell a suburban house. Trying to choke off her sobs, she slaps herself viciously in the face. "You weakling," she grinds out, "you don't cry."

American Beauty is full of scenes like this, snapshots of stifled emotions and balked desires. Hero Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a suburban ad rep trapped in a soul-destroying job; his wife is obsessed with her professional image and motivational pop-psychology, while his sullen daughter Jane (Thora Birch) seethes with adolescent resentments and insecurities. The characters, like most of the viewers they play to, yearn for an emotional fulfilment not to be found in a dead-end job or a loveless marriage. If the Burnham family is not entirely beautiful, it is unmistakably American.

But while British director Sam Mendes offers a convincing and even touching vision of dysfunctional American lives, he is far less successful in his treatment of beauty. This failure makes American Beauty an ultimately frustrating film, in which fine acting and tragicomic family stories are too often betrayed by juvenile excursions into philosophy.

Beauty, when Mendes gets around to it, has much to do with release from claustrophobic suburban mores. Lester's passion for his daughter's teenage friend Angela (Mena Suvar) leads him to quit his job, start working out and return to his dope-smoking youth, all decisions that the film implicitly applauds. Daughter Jane, meanwhile, jumps into bed with neighbour Ricky, a former mental case who now sells pot and films people through the windows of their homes.

The central 'message' we are expected to get about beauty is that one has to look hard to find it among the mundane and frankly ugly events which constitute life. There is beauty to be found in Lester's rebellion despite the ugly scenes it causes with his wife; something captivating about Ricky despite his window-peeping and dope-peddling; and a desperately poignant side to Ricky's father, buried beneath his violent, gay-bashing, Marine Corps exterior.

But rather than let audiences discover these nuggets themselves, Mendes uses Lester as a narrator to steer us in the right direction. Ricky shows Jane a film he once shot of a plastic bag swirling in the wind, and tells her how it helps remind him that beauty is everywhere you look, and that it can make your heart swell up "like a balloon" with its sheer... well, beauty. Lester repeats this wisdom in one of the movie's last frames, lest we forget.

American Beauty is also burdened with irritating tinkertoy symmetries; the rose petals which cover Angela in Lester's fantasies remind us of the rose bushes into which Lester's wife invests so much frustrated marital energy; the job Lester takes at a burger joint (bucking the system) allows him to catch his wife cheating (scales falling from his eyes).

But in the end, this sophomoric vision of beauty, and Mendes' apparent belief that audiences will not 'get it' without being led by the nose, simply add to the film's 'American' authenticity. Long wrapped up in a dream of itself, mainstream America is only now waking up to the social scars left by five decades of getting and spending - scars long obvious to the rest of the world.

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