2 min

Truly important, totally enjoyable

American Beauty goes further than the Ice Storm

SUBURBAN TRISTE. Annette Bening is brilliant in American Beauty.

Dad hates his job. Mom’s boffing the competition. And the straight-laced teenage boy next door is actually making thousands dealing dope.

Welcome to the suburbs as they’re rarely portrayed on film – with honesty.

In Sam Mendes’s first feature American Beauty (yes, he’s the same guy behind the new remount of Cabaret), the only people still caught up in the myth of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson are the happy, happy gay couple next door, Jim and Jim.

They jog together every morning, have nice professional jobs and wonder out loud just how does Mrs Burnham get her roses to be so beautiful. A mixture of Miracle Grow and crushed eggshells she advises with her steel jawed Cheshire cat smile.

Back on the porch, Mr Burnham wonders to himself: “Just when did she become so unhappy.”

The ensemble cast is fantastic. Look for them come Oscar time. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, and newcomers Thora Birch and Wes Bentley lead the pack.

Similar to Ang Lee’s award-winning film Ice Storm two years ago, American Beauty looks beyond the manicured lawn front of supposedly happy lives and reveals the suburbs with depth worthy of celluloid. And since many of us grew up there, it’s refreshing to see this world given its due.

There is much more gay content in American Beauty then Jim and Jim next door but to delve too deeply into it would destroy the who-dunnit ending of the film – which is tempting. This all-too-visible device is the film’s only weak spot.

In the opening monologue, we are informed that our protagonist, Lester Burnham, a rather pathetic figure, will be dead by the end of the film. The last third of the film is filled with distracting finger pointing clues. Will it be him? Will it be her? Who will do in our noble Lester? This is a shame because the film is exploring such deeper issues.

While Ice Storm revealed the suburbs as a place that will kill us – emotionally, physically and spiritually – American Beauty goes one step further. With Zen like simplicity, Mendes shows us that we can chose to extricate ourselves from the death mill. After a toke on a particularly good joint with the neighboour’s kid, Lester quits his job, starts working his body back into shape and rediscovers a true sense of joy in life – all the while living in the midst of the manicured lawns.

American Beauty is one of those too infrequent combinations – a truly important film that is totally enjoyable as well.

American Beauty is now playing.