AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexuality, Language, Violence and Drug Content

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Directed by: Sam Mendes

Written by: Alan Ball

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher

There are some movies that go above and beyond the scale of how one measures films. These classics are on the highest pedestal that make them exempt from criticisms. This is because these are perfect movies and they remind me of the reason I enjoy watching this art-form to begin with. If I had to pick one movie as my absolute favorite of all-time, then AMERICAN BEAUTY would be it. This is a masterful piece of art that can be taken from many different angles all at once and each one is compelling in one way or another.

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Lester Burnham has been a slave to his job for fourteen years and seems like a normal family man from the outside. Carolyn, his domineering wife, puts success in her career before the needs of anybody else. Their teenage daughter, Jane, hates both of them and has low self-esteem, which is made worse by Angela, her gossipy best friend. This seems to be the all-too-familiar American family dynamic that we’ve seen so many times in the media and the real world. The slate all begins to change when Lester goes through a mid-life crisis. He quits his job in style and begins to do things that make him feel happy (both legal and illegal). I don’t want to go any further, because there are so many things that happen in this movie and it would criminal to give too much away. To keep it vague, the film doesn’t just focus on Lester, but dedicates the equal amount of time to every character making this supposed dysfunctional Norman Rockwell painting that much more fantastic.

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AMERICAN BEAUTY is beautifully constructed all around. The film begins with an introduction to a perfect looking neighborhood complete with white picket fences. This entire story could be seen entirely as a deconstruction of the American ideal and that’s just taking it on the surface. The story itself isn’t merely satirical, but offers deep emotions as we view the transformations that each character takes. Thus, the entire thing is far more complex than just a hilarious dark comedy. This is the perfect drama! It was originally written as a play and the script passed around through many acclaimed directors in a lengthy process. Good things come to those who wait and AMERICAN BEAUTY is simply a perfect film. In fact, this is my favorite movie of all-time! No hyperbole, this is my number one movie and I could never get sick of watching it.

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Kevin Spacey’s Academy Award for Best Actor speaks volumes of his performance and everybody else’s acting is on the same sublime level of perfection. Even Chris Cooper’s character, who may be seen as a tyrant, has a sympathetic side to him. Intricate care went into the writing and creation of these characters, not to mention the various journeys they make internally throughout the film. I felt that all of the characters were understandable on some level, if not relatable. It may be a controversial statement given the ending, but I felt that there wasn’t really a villain or a clear bad guy in this film. It was just the events of this chapter in these people’s lives playing out and we get to witness them.

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For all the uncomfortable material covered, everything is shot and told in a beautiful way. Besides some tragic irony, plenty of dark comedy is thrown in that provide hearty laughs. In the end, what I feel AMERICAN BEAUTY tackles first and foremost is the view of happiness. Most of the characters wind up doing things throughout the film that make them happy and they suffer the consequences. The fate of each every single character range from happy to downright devastating, but are all poetic in one way or another. This is one film that is meant for multiple viewings and deep conversations among fellow cinephiles.

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It’s true that there is an underlying dark nature to the American dream. AMERICAN BEAUTY analyzes this in a carefully constructed manner of interlocking plots and memorable characters. It’s my favorite film of all-time and the perfect example of the highest pillar fantastic cinema can reach. Plainly put, it’s a masterpiece! If you’ve never seen it, watch it as soon as you possibly can. If you already have seen it, watch it again. This is the kind of film that ages like fine wine!

Grade: A+

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