American Beauty, 1999. Directed by Sam Mendes. Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning, Thora Birch, Wes Bently, Chris Cooper.

Behind the facade of ordinary suburban life is a surreal underbelly, or so movies like Blue Velvet, Happiness, Election, and, now, American Beauty would have us believe. Having grown up in suburbia, I suppose I can vouch for this notion, even though I never really experienced it first hand. I mean, I could sense the fringes of it, especially when I visited friends who's parents had laid down plastic runners to keep people off the immaculately groomed carpet and who wound up stoned in high school even while they looked like all-American kids. I knew my share of fucked-up people in suburbia, but none, I dare say, as fucked up as poor Kevin Spacey and his family in American Beauty.

Lester (Spacey) is going though the motions of life. Relations with his real-estate agent wife (Annette Bening) and his sullen teen-aged daughter (Thora Birch) are frosty at best and hostile most of the other time. Lester is already dead inside, even though, he tells us, he will be dead in actual fact in a year's time. But before that time is up, something happens to Lester that recalls him to life. He sees one of his daughter's cheerleader friends and is immediately smitten with her--obsessed, no less--and his fantasy life begins to spread into his real life. He begins to take the chances that he always wanted to take and he winds up happier, despite the sprialing deterioration of his familial relations. Spacey plays it perfectly, giving a performance that ranks as one of the greats. There is a shot of Spacey in this film that perfectly encapsulates the unhappiness of someone who feels trapped in a dead-end life that is so perfectly realized you could frame it. As events unfold, we forget that Spacey has told us that he will be dead soon, but the movie doesn't forget, and in a sequence of events that is as unlikely as any in a screwball comedy, death comes for Lester. Oddly enough, though, death is not his defeat. It is for him a liberation. The movie ends on a haunting grace note that is as unexpected as the rest of the movie, and leaves the audience with a disquiet that is not easily shrugged off, just as certain images from the film are not easily forgotten (a paper bag caught in the wind provides a central metaphor in the movie, for instance, as do American Beauty roses). When all is said and the final credits roll, American Beauty has worked the audience over like no other movie in recent memory. It's an amazing piece of work.

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