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It's the ninth month of the year, and one has to be wondering when a film worthy to be nominated for best picture will be released. It wasn't like this last year, when Saving Private Ryan had been released in the summer, and set the standard for the Oscar rush pics of November and December to live up to. A truly exceptional drama had not been released until now, and like Ryan, American Beauty is the film that others will have to overcome in order to become the new favorite for best picture.
Although the film boasts several unique and absorbing characters, it is essentially driven by Kevin Spacey's smooth portrayal of Lester Burnham, a 42-year-old suburbanite going through a severe mid-life crisis. He is saddened at what his life has become, but conveys his unhappiness with a cool sardonic tone that is echoed throughout the film. We first see him in the shower masturbating. "This is the high-point of my day," he tells us. "It's a downward spiral from this point on."
A similarly sharp Annette Benning plays Lester's wife Carolyn, an overly ambitious workaholic, whom Lester believes has forgotten who she once was, and has now become a phony. "See the way the handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That's not an accident," Lester scathingly remarks.
Among the many things disturbing is the relationship the two have with their teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch, who plays a role very similar to that of Christina Ricci in "The Ice Storm," and even looks like her). Their everyday dialogue has deteriorated into hi's and hello's, and when Jane catches her dad leering at her friend, her disgust and antipathy towards him begins to ferment. She can't stop talking about what a loser she thinks he is, and even speaks of how she could do without his pathetic existence.
It is obvious that both parents hardly spend enough of their attention on Jane. Carolyn becomes interested in a rival real estate salesman, whom she idealizes for his success, and seems to represent the same way Carolyn has lost her genuineness when he tells he that the key to success is always reflecting an image of success. Lester turns his attention to Jane's self-absorbed best friend, whom he can easily picture himself sexually involved with.
Jane tries to turn her attention away from her parents, and she begins to focus on her new next-door neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) whom she discovers videotaping her every move. "I'm not obsessing, just curious," he explains to her. She is somewhat annoyed but relishes in the attention. The Fitts family is even more of a paragon of dysfunction than the Burnham family. Allison Janney is Ricky's vapid mom, who barely communicates a change in facial expression to either Ricky, or his authoritarian father (an excellently hard Chris Cooper).
The feel closely resembles Ang Lee's 1997 critical success and commercial failure "The Ice Storm," (even the score is similar) although this plot is much thicker and the Alan Ball's screenplay is much more comical. First time director Sam Mendes, who brought the same sexual charge to his production of "The Blue Room," could be in line for an Oscar, and wouldn't it be a surprise if a DreamWorks director other than Speilberg won the award. In fact, there is only one thing standing in the way of a deserved sweep at the Oscars, and isn't it ironic that it is the same thing that led to "The Ice Storm" getting snubbed: the controversial themes (especially homosexuality and sex amongst teenagers) are hardly looked highly upon by the conservative Academy.
It doesn't matter though, how many awards the film racks up, or its rank among the best films of the nineties. In a year where the best made films seem to be teenage comedies (Election, American Pie, Go), a drama so phenomenal as American Beauty, is well worth the wait.
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