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500 Five-Star: American Beauty (1999)

July 25, 2011

I have agonised over this review a little, because what I want to say doesn’t exactly fit with the conventional opinions on American Beauty.  90% of viewers adore it.  10% think it’s the worst film in history.  Me?  I think it’s ok.  Not the best film in the world, not the worst.  Just ok.  Admittedly I did love it when I first saw it a number of years ago, but with every viewing since my enjoyment has waned.  On first viewing, it’s very easy to be taken in by the excellent performances (Kevin Spacey, of course, is the standout but Annette Bening-who I’m not always too keen on-is also particularly memorable) and the fact that it all seems to be so very clever, with so much to say.  When you’re an easily impressed 17 year old, as I was when I first saw it, the plastic bag floating in the breeze seems oh-so-important, so magical, so deep.

But guess what?  It’s not, really.  It’s just a plastic bag floating in the breeze.  Some might find it beautiful, some might not.  It’s all objective.  Is that what American Beauty is trying to tell us?  If so, whoop-de-do.  Most people learn that when they’re about seven years old.  Of course, that’s not all this film is.  It’s a satirical look at the hidden lives of seemingly regular American people.  Because guess what?  Once you get behind closed doors, everything is not as it seems.  Again, I think that’s something most of us figured out fairly early on in our lives.  What American Beauty is apparently teaching us, though, is that behind closed doors, everyone is a huge stereotype.  The man suffering a mid-life crisis obsessing over a teenager, the frustrated, miserable housewife, the grumpy teenager…and don’t even get me started on the repressed homosexual.  The world is full of people trying to fit into conventions in order to give order to the human race; this is not a particularly new revelation.  This is what American Beauty tries to explore, but it does so within the frame of an incredibly contrived story (the Kevin Spacey/Wes Bentley garage scene is laughable in its ridiculousness) and characters we’ve seen a million times before.  Just because a character cries over the beauty of a plastic bag, or you fill the screen with rose petals, that doesn’t mean you’re telling us anything new.

I realise it sounds like I don’t like American Beauty at all.  As I said, this isn’t true.  I really do think it’s ok.  It is entertaining, and it’s worth watching for Kevin Spacey alone.  I just don’t view it as the magical piece of filmmaking that so many others do…bit like the video of the plastic bag, really.


If Sam Mendes had intended on that plastic bag being a microcosm of the film as a whole, then I’d be impressed.  Sadly, I think that’s a tad unlikely, and so I have to disagree with Empire…


One Comment leave one →
  1. Emilia permalink
    July 25, 2011 6:18 pm

    My favourite thing about this film is Thora Birch <3!

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