How twisted can a drama be? How dramatic can a comedy be? How comical can being twisted be? Finding out is part of the fun, which unfortunately comes very close to being ruined with reminders of how it all turns out in the end.
Kevin Spacey portrays Lester, a complete loser. He hates his job, his wife ignores him, and the highlight of his day is being alone with himself in the shower, which isn’t exactly where he envisioned himself being at age 42. When he’s pushed too far at work, Lester empowers himself with the conviction that he has nothing to lose. While Lester embraces his mid-life crisis, his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), isn’t the success she envisions herself to be and secretly worships her competitor in real estate, Buddy (Peter Gallagher). And Lester’s daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is suffering her own pressures from her friend Angela (Mena Suvari), enduring countless stories of Angela’s conquests and dreams which push her into the arms of her neighbors’ son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), whom Angela despises because he doesn’t seem interested in her. Over the course of a few short days, these peoples live become entangled with one another as each learns the darker truths about the others and about themselves.
What’s good is this: Spacey is awesome. We are invited to share in his midlife crisis and identity search, brought vividly to life in a way few actors would be able to. And he isn’t alone; the rest of the cast is equally intense and charismatic. And the inclusion of some familiar faces in unfamiliar roles, such as Scott Bakula as one of two “Jims” living together next door, is both surreal and pure genius. Each character has their ups, their downs, their fun moments, and their dark moments. No one is without a few skeletons in their closet, but neither is anyone unredeemable. This is a film you won’t forget and your friends will be talking about for some time.
But it’s not perfect. In fact, voiceovers by Spacey constantly interrupt the drama with near- meaningless observations, not the least of which is a constant reminder of how everything turns out. What could have been a brilliant ending with the kind of the shock The Sixth Sense left the audience with is dampened, possibly in an effort to tone down a very intense scene. This may have been deliberate after seeing how test audiences reacted without the ample warning, but I, for one, felt it took away from the overall drama. Maybe more people will see it as a result, but it feels more like a compromise for what could have been an even better movie. In a film where the point is to find out what happens with everyone, telling us the ending beforehand is like telling a child that Santa isn’t real on their first trip to the shopping mall to see him.
Aside from my personal pet peeve, American Beauty paints a period picture of life at the turn of century, and it’s nice to see there’s still something worth living for underneath all the late- century masks and expectations.
(3 out of 4)