"American Beauty"
A Film Review by
Linda Lopez McAlister
On "Ythe Women's Show" WMNF-FM 88.5 Tampa, FL
Saturday, October 16, 1999

After two weeks of film festival reviews and two weeks of marathon, I'm way behind in my reviews of newly released feature films in theaters. Yesterday I went to take a look at Sam Mendes' film "American Beauty" and that's a description of this film as well as a title. It is quite an extraordinary film. Two things stand out about it, the direction and cinematography which is very distinctive and unlike anything you're used to, and the brilliance of the character studies that are the substance of the film. It is moving, it is horrifying, it is grim, and it's, alas, brimming with dark emotional truths.

"American Beauty" could have been a kind of run of the mill family melodrama about a dysfunctional family with a moribund marriage and an alienated teen age daughter. The screenplay and direction raise it far about that routine fare, though it is a film about such a family as well as their neighbors. Lester(played by Kevin Spacey), the narrator and leading charactger in this film, is a 42 year old married man and father. He earns $60,000 a year as a writer for a magazine, a job he's thoroughly bored with. He says the high point of his day is when he masturbates in the shower in the morning and everything is downhill from there. He seems and feels as though he's numb or in a trance. His wife, Carolyn, (Annette Benning) is one of those phonily cheerful perfectionists who must have everything about her life, her family, her home, and herself give the appearance of being perfect. However. neither her husband nor her daughter Jane nor her real estate business actually reach the level of perfection she aspires to; they don't even come close. Carolyn is up tight, sexually frustrated, domineering to her husband and daughter, and about to crack under the pressure of putting up the front of being the mother in the perfect family. That perfection extends even to growing perfect long stemmed American Beauty roses behind the white picket fence in her perfectly manicured front yard.

Fifteen year old daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is equally scornful of both her parents. She is totally incommunicative with them and unreceptive to their occasional to show her that they're interested in her. Jane hangs out with a school friend who aspires to be a model and a worldly woman who is always talking about her sexual exploits and lording it over the others less daring than she makes herself out to be.

Next door on one side are two gay professional men who are quite friendly and conventionally suburban. On the other side new neighbors move in whose family is at least as dysfunctional as Lester/Carolyn/Jane. The father is a retired Marine officer who hasn't lost one iota of his ramrod rigidity and who treats his wife and son as if they were grunts under his command. When he is displeased he resorts readily to violent responses. His son Mike is older than Jane but still in high school with her because he has just returned from two years commitment in a mental hospital. He has a disconcerting hobby of voyeuristically videotaping nearly everything he sees, including goings on inside his neighbors' house. And he seems to be obsessed with Jane. Meanwhile, though he acts toward his father as if he is the perfectly disciplined and devoted son. In reality he leads a completely hidden secret life as a lover of beauty and a dealer of high quality marijuana that gives him the wherewithal to have his top of the line video equipment.

That's pretty much the cast of characters. Within a few months all of this changes drastically. The first impetus to change is Lester's seeing and lusting after Jane's gorgeous blond school friend. But that's only the beginning. The plot is too delicious to reveal, so just let me say that by the end there are at least three people who might be ready to murder Lester in cold blood.

Kevin Spacy has received well deserved glowing praise for his portrayal of Lester, but I want to say a word about Annette Benning's equally bold characterization of Carolyn. She so easily slips into her brittle and repressede character that it's hard to like her, because her portrayal of this distraught woman, hanging on to her life by a thread, is thoroughly convincing. There are many unforgettable visual images in this film, but I think the one that stands out in my mind above all the others is one, near the end, where she embraces Lester's shirts hanging in the closet and then falls to the floor in a fetal position. There are no words but none are needed, the gesture is so perfect.

Do go see thisAmerican beauty of a film. It's grim and hard to watch but it is nothing short of brilliant.

For the WMNF Women's Show this is Linda Lopez McAlister on women and film.