Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is your usual well-behaved 42-year-old dreg of an American dad until he spots his teenaged daughter's girl friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) whose beauty transforms him. Part of the fun of this very funny and enjoyable movie is watching Lester break out of his self-imposed shell and blossom with the rose petals as he tells everybody what he really thinks as though he had nothing to lose.
His daughter Jane is a brooding raven-haired beauty who likes to put on a white-powdered face and red Betty Boop lips to go with her full figure. Thora Birch, who plays Jane, has a face that can mesmerize, and Director Sam Mendes puts her to work mesmerizing us.
Annette Bening, in a comedic tour de force, plays Lester's wife Carolyn, a straitlaced, uptight, worry wart who sells real estate. Next door we have, just moving in, 18-year-old Ricky Fitts, played with sly self-assurance by Wes Bentley, the dope-dealing, Bible-suit wearing, photog son of Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts and his mostly catatonic wife. Two houses down there's Jim and Jim, your smiling yuppie fruit loops and all-around neighborhood sweet guys. They are however an embarrassment to Colonel Fitts who is living in the deep, dark corner of a very large denial closet, paranoid to the teeth that his only son has inherited the same shameful desires and will act them out. In an effort to keep Ricky disciplined and on the straight and narrow, the good Colonel practices various forms of child abuse ranging from bare-knuckle beatings to medicated imprisonment.
In other words what we have here is your typical American suburban street. What makes American Beauty a great success is a witty script with a deep and beautiful lesson for our age by Alan Ball, superb direction by Sam Mendes and outstanding performances from just about everybody in the cast. Bening is brilliant with her silly finger gestures and her one foot sideways stance, like a fawn just learning to walk, and her squinty little eyes full of merriment, and that raised and then downward pointing index finger of indignant reproof. (But she really needs to keep her pretty shins off the bedposts or at least off the wall.) Mena Suvari is perhaps no more beautiful than any number of other screen darlings, but she has a litany of sexy expressions and poses that inspire delight. Her portrayal of a fast lane teen siren whose talk is bigger than her experience is just perfect. She might be a budding star.
But more than anything this is an uplifting and satisfying tale of an unappreciated, unloved and mostly ignored man who is inspired to transform his life by the beauty of a girl. For many people (and for most women, I would wager) falling in love at first sight with a teenaged girl just because she is beautiful is shallow and beside the point, inappropriate and not fair. But women love men for their power and their strength and their standing in society. Is that fair to those men who have none? Lester's love for Angela was so great that it transcended carnality, but he didn't know that until he began to take off her clothes and then he realized something very beautiful. He could love her without making love to her. If he took advantage of her youth and inexperience, it would cheapen his love for her and possibly destroy it. Maybe some people in the audience felt he wasn't a real man because he stopped, but I tend to feel the opposite. Not that I think there is anything wrong with making love to 18-year-old girls (on the contrary); but if the girl is incapable of experiencing that love, then perhaps it is better to love her from afar without a sexual expression, even at the risk of disappointing her, especially if you're old enough to be her father, and especially if you really do love her. Notice that in the next scene she is bored and for her the magic of sexuality is gone. He might as well be her father.
So much of what we are presented through the media is a focus on those males who would only be able to express themselves in some sexually-exploitive manner. So much of what we read insists that this is the only way men are. I'm happy to say that American Beauty presents another point of view, and presents it beautifully.
The point made by the surprising ending (and the reason for the presence of the Marine colonel and the two gay guys) is that our contemporary "enlightened" society may recognize the legitimacy of homosexual love, but continues to hypocritically condemn the love of a man for a young girl.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!"
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