Magazine article The Christian Century

Hidden Beauty

Magazine article The Christian Century

Hidden Beauty

Article excerpt

EXTREME TIMES demands extreme art, and American Beauty is extreme. It is an extremely funny, extremely touching, extremely disturbing look at the dysfunctions of suburban America. But it does not wallow in dysfunction. It dares to find hope amidst the horror.

The film opens by borrowing a page from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard: the narrator introduces himself and his death. "My name is Lester Burnham. I'm 42 years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead." Lester (Kevin Spacey) is sleep walking through life and admits that "in a way, I'm dead already." His midlife crisis offers viewers laughs and the vicarious thrills of telling off the boss, quitting a dead-end job, and reverting to carefree, high school days of pursuing girls.

Lester's wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a realtor who is uptight (as Lester says, "Her pruning shears match her gardening clogs") and money-hungry. Motivational tapes are her mantras. Not bothering to mask her contempt for Lester, she finds a mentor and lover in Buddy Kane, "the real estate king." Their creed: "To be successful, one must project an image of success at all times."

The film carefully observes the distance between parents and teens. Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) is smart, sullen, depressed. She finds solace in her new next-door neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley in a powerful breakthrough performance). At first, Ricky's military style haircut, conservative clothes and constant videotaping of others disturb Jane. But she's attracted to his confident, centered presence. Ricky becomes the film's anchor, a catalyst to Lester and a comfort to Jane. He speaks with authority, as a survivor of harrowing abuse at the hands of his father, a marine colonel. Ricky knows when to cooperate with his father (Chris Cooper), answering "Sir, yes sir" as a form of protection, a means of buying the freedom to pursue marijuana, videos and Jane.

The title stems from the perfectly manicured roses blooming along the Burnhams' white picket fence. It also refers to Jane's best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), a supermodel in training. She fuels Lester's sexual fantasies and sparks his resolve to get in shape. The scenes between Lester and the underage Angela begin as comic, but end as appropriately creepy.

The insightful script by Alan Ball places responsibility for Jane and Ricky's problems at their parents' feet. "I need a father who's a role model, not some horny geek boy," declares Jane. Carolyn slaps Jane for failing to appreciate the wealth that's been accumulated for her. Colonel Fitts spies on Ricky, fearful that he's on dope again, and he beats Ricky to instill "structure" and "discipline. …

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