(director: Sam Mendes; screenwriter: Alan Ball; cinematographer: Conrad L. Hall; editors: Tariq Anwar/Chris Greenbury; cast: Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Caroline Burnham),Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Chris Cooper (Colonel Fitts), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts), Barry Del Sherman (Brad), Scott Bakula (Jim No. 1), Sam Robards (Jim No. 2); Runtime: 121; Dreamworks SKG; 1999)


I somehow liked the film more than I probably should have.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is a Steven Spielberg DreamWorks project film. Sam Mendes was personally hired by the big boss, as he makes his feature film directorial debut with American Beauty. He previously directed Arthur Schnitzler’s play “The Blue Room” on Broadway, starring Nicole Kidman, and he also directed the award-winning London production of “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.”

The English born Mendes turns his attention to the “Anywhere” in America suburbs a favorite place for sitcoms, where the middle-class are always ripe for social criticism. In this case, the film hones in on two dysfunctional suburban families living next to each other, both with disturbing sexual problems that keep each family from enjoying the “good life.”

In the first house are the Burnhams: Lester (Kevin Spacey) is a repressed middle-aged man. Carolyn (Annette Bening) is Lester’s frigid and enterprising Realtor wife, who is more interested in the material things of life and in her hobby of growing garden roses than she is in having a warm relationship with her husband. Their teenage daughter Jane (Thora) can’t communicate with either parent, thinking that her dad is a pathetic loser and her mother is an uncaring phony. Her inattentive folks don’t even realize what is bothering her, that she wants an unneeded breast enlargement and that she lacks self-esteem — foolishly thinking of herself as being unattractive.

The Fitts family are the new neighbors of the Burnhams and the second dysfunctional family featured. Mr. Fitts is the retired marine colonel (Chris Cooper) who thinks the world should conform to military-like rules; his gloomy robot-like wife (Janney) is someone who is in denial about her miserable life; their misfit 18-year-old son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), is a source of parental discipline. He was caught by his dad smoking dope and was voluntarily placed in a mental institution after being kicked out of a military school for trying to kill another student. The father tests his son every few months for drugs by taking a sample of his urine.

The story centers around three sudden changes that happen to Lester, as Lester via a voiceover from the other world tells us he died within a year of this story taking place. He is, at first, seen as a bland, white-collar working stiff who feels in the doldrums about the emptiness of his life and has what may be loosely termed a ‘spiritual reawakening’ when the frustration of his unsatisfying job as an editor for the last 14 years at an advertising publication firm reaches a critical point; and, before he gets the ax, he bribes his snotty young boss, Brad (Del Sherman), to pay him a year’s salary as severance pay. He also gets to tell him to go f*ck himself. The second change is when Ricky sells him some top-notch grass and he gets stoned while listening to some old Dylan recordings he plays, subbing them for the Lawrence Welk type of music his wife likes to put on when they’re dining. And thirdly, his antagonistic daughter, Jane (Thora), reluctantly introduces him to her nubile high school cheerleader friend, Angela (Mena), at a basketball game he is dragged to by his wife. He falls in love with Angela instantly and has her in his erotic dreams–where rose petals are seen coming out from her cheerleader’s sweater. Previously, his only pleasure in life was in jerking off once a day. Angela is a sexual tease who talks like a Valley girl and dreams of becoming a super-model. She enjoys having Jane’s father staring at her and tells the embarrassed Jane that he’s cute, and if he worked out and got muscles she would go to bed with him. Lester overhears this on the night Angela sleeps over in their house and immediately starts a physical training program to pull in his gut and become muscular.

Lester is rejuvenated by his dream girl. He loses his inhibitions as he starts to smoke pot again and tries to turn the clock back to his youth by becoming a hamburger flipper in a fast-food place, recalling how happy he once was when working at a job without responsibilities. At that time, he was getting laid and stoned regularly.

The story now follows Carolyn who is having an affair with someone she idolizes–her competitor, the king of the local real estate market, Buddy “The King” Kane (Peter Gallagher), a person more driven for success and more wrapped up in himself than she is. She also learns to shoot a gun, at the suggestion of her lover, as a way to release her pent-up tension. Kane is one of those guys who lives by the slogans from motivational tapes, where he has a saying to get him through anything in life.

The story, then, centers on Ricky and Jane, as she takes a chance and gets to know the voyeur who, at first, bothered her by constantly videotaping her. But she surprisingly finds warmth in her relationship with this freak. He can see the beauty in the simple things of life and makes no pretense of trying to fit into suburbia, like she was trying to do. Ricky seems to be weirdly obsessed with beauty and death, and has become a compulsive voyeur to escape from the harsh realities of his life. Somehow, he has developed a confidence in himself, just like one that Lester will develop. These two become friends and along with Jane become the heroes of the story or, at least, these are the flawed characters who are found to be worthy of being saved from their shallow lives.

The film builds to a mystery conclusion, where the characters are forced to come together to decide their fate and to find out if they are worthy of being redeemed.

Inviting Jane to see the most beautiful thing he has ever videotaped, Ricky shows her the image of an empty plastic bag swirling in the wind on a blustery day. He then tells her that he finds beauty in such ordinary things and is constantly amazed that there is beauty behind every image he uncovers. Ricky and Lester will share this same vision of life, as this becomes the film’s mantra: that redemption can be gotten through love. This mantra will also be repeated at the end of the film, before the credits are shown. The viewer is told by Lester, from the other world: that if you don’t share the film’s piercing vision of what really matters, someday you will. The lesson to be learnt is that love is the only thing that can’t be completely taken away from people, it remains behind everything that is.

This Alan Ball script, his debut assignment in films, is bristling with comedy and hard lessons to learn about life for these unfulfilled characters. If normalcy is the thing that the families are striving for even if that is quickly seen as a sham then what the director brilliantly does is shoot down any hope for his characters ever being normal, even those who might think that they are normal. So what are they striving for, if not normalcy? Perhaps, in the end, we see that they are after love but have lost the way in their long trip through life and are now trying to get back on track, each in their own convoluted way, as only the colonel can’t because of his bad karma and his wife can’t because she just doesn’t have the energy to even try.

What results is a darkly satirical story that was exquisitely directed. It makes sound points about the fallacy of normalcy and the necessity of nonconformity, and that its barbs about suburbia are on target.

The film succeeds because the acting was grand by everyone and Spacey was more than grand. His was a tour-de-force performance. He has the ability to squeeze humor out of a stone and turn frightening at the drop of a dish. He’s that good of an actor to carry this film even as he is supported by a terrific cast, he still stands out as the star. Bening is his perfect foil with a special flare for comedy but through no fault of hers, is scripted to be a cardboard villain. Bentley, a virtual newcomer to films, his prior experience being a few lines in Beloved, gives a strong performance as a very complex teen. He gets the upper hand even as he is being punched around by his father, while pretending to his father that he believes his disciplinary methods are for his own good. Mena is in an exploitative role, one that calls for an obligatory porn-like shot of her breasts, but she is appealing and brings more to the part than can be expected — even crying out for sympathy by the film’s end. Thora is a 17-year-old veteran actress, even at that tender age, who played a twisted and sullen figure but, nevertheless, came off as a sympathetic person. She gave a soulful performance, reminding me of Christina Ricci. Cooper did a fine job as a homophobic and a closet-homosexual; but, his role as a villain was too one-dimensional to give his character a more introspective edge to it, even if his performance was first-class.

So why did I just like the film very much but not love it? I think it is because as entertaining as this film was, something just didn’t smell right about these roses; everything discovered seemed to be only something that is surface deep; there was no real revolution of character going on. The characters were looking outwardly for help as none of them had a grip on their inward nature, which is a good place to start when looking for beauty. I think there were too many contradictions in the lives of Lester, Ricky, and Jane to believe that they found what they were looking for, even if the film implies that is just what they did do.

What goes for “real” change of character in this film (it is hard to tell if the film means it to be a parody or not), can only be termed as trivial changes as seen by the following examples: Lester by working at a Mr. Smileys fast-food place after quitting his so-called “real” job is not really going through an internal change, he is merely escaping from life by going through a temporary childhood fantasy. The satire also became mean-spirited at this point, as they seemed to be mocking those who take such jobs by implying they are losers. Carolyn, by screwing her way to liberation, has not found a means to love but more than likely, she has only found a means to continue her path of selfish pleasure. Ricky, by kowtowing to his father’s persecution and by becoming a successful drug dealer, has not found a healthy way to handle an abnormal father-son relationship. His character was actually the most interesting one in the film, since he saw things the others couldn’t see; yet, I suspect there is something deeply wrong with a teenager who has to find love by being a voyeur and achieve material success by being a drug dealer, no matter how it is explained away. Jane, by running away from home with Ricky, is not doing what is necessarily a good thing for a naive high school girl to do.

When you think about what the film had to say and distance yourself from all the fine performances and the splendid cinematography that the 70+ master of his craft, Conrad L. Hall, photographed — and you step away from the sharp wit found in Alan Ball’s dazzling script — what you are left with is how shallow it all is. It’s a film that has a bite to its satire, but not enough of a bite to dig into the characters other than what is seen on the surface. In the end this is primarily a Hollywood type of film and all the hype about how daring and unconventional this film is, should be dismissed as nothing but hype. Yet it is a captivating film, one that had its moments of grandeur; and, all in all, I really was absorbed by it. I somehow liked the film more than I probably should have.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”