American Beauty
directed by Sam Mendes
(Universal, 1999)

American Beauty is not one of those movies you simply watch and quickly forget, and it's awfully hard to review. Only once have I walked away in mid-review, feeling quite unable to do a subject justice, but I am ready now to start again and offer my own thoughts on this extraordinary film.

You know a film is something special when you wonder how so many people could possibly like it. American Beauty can justifiably be called quite weird, and the treatment of subjects such as a relationship between a 42-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl, complete family dysfunctionality and murder most foul doesn't normally result in critical as well as box office success, not to mention such honors as Best Picture awards.

One thing this movie certainly has going for it is its shockingly original nature; no one had made a movie quite like this before. What strikes me as really quite amazing is the fact that, despite all the buzz about this movie, I still had little idea of what to expect once I finally watched it for myself.

Then there is the talented cast; I can take or leave Kevin Spacey, and I do not like Annette Bening, but I can't deny their talents; I will admit that Mena Suvari was a prime motivator in my own initial attraction to this movie, though. All told, each member of the cast gave a brilliant performance. Then there is the incredible musical score, as well as the mesmerizing cinematography. Of course, the heart of American Beauty is its story.

The characters in this film are all living lives of quiet (sometimes not so quiet) desperation, and that is the source of the appeal to so many people. Today's reality is unreality. Some individuals might think they want nothing more than a normal life, but I believe that, deep down, no one wants to be ordinary. Everyone wants to find a meaning for his or her life, even those who convince themselves otherwise. Who of us is really happy? American Beauty helps us acknowledge our own dreams of meaning and understanding, while at the same time it offers a level of comfort to those of us conscious of our unfulfilling lives.

The characters in this film come off as quite real, albeit a surreal form of real, and they are screwed up more than we are. Lester Burnham (Spacey) even succeeds in finding a part of what he has been missing all his life, although that incredibly victorious moment is cut short at the end. No one is whom they claim to be here, each character hiding secrets that are ultimately brought to light in the hypnotizing final moments; there are some significant revelations that many viewers may not anticipate. These characters aren't truly fake, however; they are just unhappy.

While all of this intense emotional drama could well afflict the viewer with something akin to depression, American Beauty somehow manages to deliver a message of, if not hope, then at least understanding and mutual sympathy, supporting us with many moments of dark comedy along the way, holding our hands down the long passage to the ultimate door of revelation. And it is the most troubled individual of all who shows us that there is beauty in even the ugliest of circumstances, if we will just stop and look for it.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 11 June 2005

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