A discussion of American Beauty

I don’t know where this discussion of American Beauty comes from but it is well worth reading for revision purposes.

When you have nothing to lose you might as well risk everything. The film American Beauty shows us from the outset that Lester Burnham is in a rut. In response to a midlife crisis Lester reverts to adolescence. His sudden irreverent rebellion enrages his wife and confuses his daughter particularly when he turns a lustful gaze toward her friend Angela.

From its first gliding aerial shot of a generic suburban street, American Beauty moves with a mesmerising confidence and acuity epitomised by Kevin Spacey’s calm narration. Spacey is Lester Burnham, a harried Everyman whose midlife awakening is the spine of the story, and his very first lines hook us with their teasing fatalism and like Sunset Boulevard‘s Joe Gillis, Burnham tells us his story from beyond the grave.

The film weaves social satire, domestic tragedy and whodunit into a single package, Screenwriter Alan Ball’s first theatrical script blurs generic lines and keep viewers off balance, winking seamlessly from dark comedy to deeply moving drama. The Burnham family joins the cinematic short list of great dysfunctional American families, as Lester is pitted against his manic, materialistic realtor wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening, making the most of a mostly unsympathetic role) and his sullen, contemptuous teenaged daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, utterly convincing in her edgy balance of self-absorption and wistful longing). Into their lives come two catalytic outsiders. A young cheerleader (Mena Suvari) jolts Lester into a sexual epiphany that blooms into a second adolescence. And an eerily calm young neighbour (Wes Bentley) transforms both Lester and Jane with his canny influence.

American Beauty is English theatrical director Sam Mendes first film and he expertly juggles these potentially disjunctive elements into a superb ensemble piece that achieves a stylised pace without lapsing into transparent self-indulgence. Mendes has shrewdly insured his success with a solid crew of stage veterans, yet he’s also made an inspired discovery in Bentley, whose Ricky Fitts becomes a pivot for both plot and theme. Cinematographer Conrad Hall’s sumptuous visual design further elevates the film, infusing the beige interiors of the Burnhams’ lives with vivid bursts of deep crimson, the colour of roses-and of blood.

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