American Beauty
**** GM
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Wes Bently, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher


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Kevin Spacey used to be play a character on the old CBS series "Wiseguy." I never watched the show, but I caught a rerun once in which he was so furious at somebody that he actually threatened to 'eat his children.' If that's not a sign of an interesting actor, I don't know what is.

Kevin Spacey never gives a bad performance. Compelling in "The Negotiator," dryly understated in "Glengarry Glen Ross," comically snippy in "The Ref," and positively creepy in "Seven," the man always makes you pay attention to him. He's once again at his best in "American Beauty," as Lester Burnham, a beaten man approaching middle age with nothing to look forward to... until becoming infatuated with one of his daughter's friends prompts him to completely change his life, ostensibly in an effort to become appealing to her, but as he continues to make the changes he's secretly longed for, he starts to enjoy his life more than he has in decades. Of course, this REALLY annoys his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), who had come to embrace the shallow yuppies they've become and despises Lester's rebelling against it.

Throw in the shallow object of his affection Angela (Mena Suvari), his lost and unhappy daughter Jane (Thora Birch), the creepy guy with the camera fetish next door named Ricky (Wes Bentley) and his even creepier ex-Marine father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), all caught in the whirlwind, and this film becomes a very intriguing look at society, what is valued, what is overlooked and how it needs to change.

The Lester-Angela relationship is the catalyst that starts everything moving, and they seem to be slowly drawn to each other, since they're both driven by the urge to be more than ordinary, although in very different ways from very different viewpoints. The more it actually grows, though, the more you share Jane's revulsion at the thought of it, and some of that same squirmy, uncomfortable vibe from "Happiness" starts to slink in as it unfolds, although nowhere near the same degree of nausea it caused in that film (particularly because the relationship here is consensual). Fortunately, though, we're spared the nightmare of actual consummation.

The central theme seems to be that, for all the ridiculous posturing, ugly hatreds, long-held prejudices and daily struggles in American life, the most amazing emotional moments can be gleaned from the least likely sources. Ricky's creepy at first, but the motivations for his eerie recording of everything he sees reveals that he just wants to remember all the beauty he sees in everything - from a plastic bag in the wind to a dead guy on the kitchen table, he's able to look beyond the surface and see the true moment in time - the good and the bad. Ricky's dad doesn't seem to see beauty in much of anything... but it's because he's fighting violently against himself, not willing to admit that what he finds beautiful truly is.

Lester finds it in reclaiming his youthful energy, Carolyn finds it in embracing her yuppie lifestyle and allowing Peter Gallagher to plow her, Angela finds it in all things superficial, Jane finds it in Ricky. It's what we're all searching for, and so few of us seem to grasp that it's always there, always in front of us, no matter where we are. There's something to be found almost everywhere, and this film is a powerful reminder to us... to help us make sure we're all looking for the right thing, and to make sure we don't dismiss anything without appreciating it for what it could be.

We're all trying to find that point in our lives where we're happy enough with ourselves to boldly proclaim, as Lester puts it, "I RULE!"

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