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IN SHORT: Think statues. [Rated [R], 100 minutes]
What do you get when you team a first time screen director (a couple of Broadway hits under his belt) and a first time big screen writer (a couple of TV sitcoms)? Usually Cranky gets a massive headache. But sometimes . . .
I've said it a couple of times before on these pages or in the occasional radio or TV appearance: Great Films always begin as great movies. Great Movies must make you laugh or cry; touch you or move you emotionally; offer characters and/or situations that make some connection to something deep inside. If a movie accomplishes one or two of those things, it's probably worth the ticket price. If it does more, we critics bark at the moon hoping that you readers will pay attention.
American Beauty is the second movie to tackle mid-life crises as the center of its story. Unlike Election, there is no confusing this flick with something aimed at, and starring, teens though there is a substantial subplot dealing with those kidlets. Thus, you can approach this flick from two angles, which is a mark of expert writing. I'm going to start with the old folks, 'cuz that's what I am.
American Beauty is the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who faces imminent unemployment after 14 years writing for an advertising industry trade mag. Living in a contented yet loveless marriage to his real estate tycoon (at least, in her mind) wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), Lester is facing mighty hard times. Communication problems plague his once vital relationship with his now distant teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). Lester wonders about, in a narrative track that accompanies the flick, where it all started to go bad. Then, a glimpse of Jane's friend and almost superstar model slut pal Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) in her cheerleader outfit, gives Les the spark he needs. Out come the weights and the sweatsuit, 'cuz the old man wants to get buff for the American beauty he fantasizes about.
Yeah, the idea of a 42 year old man fantasizing about a 17 year old girl is pretty disgusting. Cranky saw it happen to at least one father of one of his friends and the results in that real life case were the same: said father figure instantly reverted to teenhood. Spacey's Lester is almost giddy with anticipation and his complete reversal of character is missing only the zits. Angela, it should be pointed out, does not discourage the attention and there's a helluva lot more to this particular plot thread that you'll have to find out for yourself. Carolyn, on the other hand, is ready to kiss up to the competition. He's Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), the self-proclaimed "King of Real Estate" and there's a helluva lot more etc etc etc.
The question of "why aren't things the way they used to be" lingers in the neighborhood as well. The neighbors to the left are Jim (Scott Bakula) and his partner Jim (Sam Robards). The neighbors to the right are retired Marine Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), his almost catatonic wife (Allison Janney) and their teenage son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who has been stalking Jane and videotaping her every move. This brings alternative lifestyles, homophobia, Semper Fi stereotypes and some pot humor into the story.
For the teens out there, the stories of Jane, Angela and Ricky should provide plenty of diversion. Like most teens, their parents are embarrassments. Jane wishes her dad were dead. Ricky volunteers to do the job. But American Beauty ain't no murder mystery. It's a black comedy whose humor is razor sharp, whose story is so well written that, even up to the very end, you will sit in your seat working the permutations on how the inevitable will happen. That's not spilling any secret -- Spacey's narrative informs you within 15 seconds of the start of American Beauty that his character will be dead by the end of it. Whether the cause is natural or unnatural, Cranky won't say.
Writer Alan Ball has done a great job and given the actors all they need to create great, and living, characters. Sam Mendes, best known for his direction of the current Broadway version of Cabaret leads you on a journey from fun to reality that is seamless and sobering.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to American Beauty, he would have paid . . .
Highly recommended. Oscar® list level. Cranky didn't expect to have to start thinking about those damned end of year lists for at least another month but . . .
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