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In one of many poignant moments in Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty”, Lester Burnham(Kevin Spacey) watches his new neighbour, teenaged drug-dealer and video enthusiast Ricky tell off his boss at his part-time catering job, saying “You don’t have to pay me.” Upon seeing the boss confused, he puts on a okay-here’s-how-it’s-done tone and says ” I quit. So you don’t have to pay me.”Seeing this Burnham, who is trapped in a highly mediocre, humdrum job and a stagnant, rotting marriage, says, in unashamed admiration “You’ve just become my hero….”
Emancipation from the clutches of an “ordinary” and “ordered” existence is one of the key themes addressed in this masterpiece of a film. Lester Burnham has nothing to look forward to in his life. He has an average job, he has a career-obesessed wife and he has the All-American Surly Teenage daughter. But this soon changes when he spots Angela, the quintessential blonde, a friend of his daughter’s, and starts to lust after her. In perhaps the most famous visual associated with the film, he envisages her lying naked in a pool of rose petals.
From then on he decides to do away with the banal repetitiveness of his life. He quits his job(blackmailing his boss for a fat severance package), starts to work out, and refuses to be pushed around by his wife.But Lester is not the only one with issues. His wife Carolyn(Annette Bening) is a real estate agent trying her best to succeed at her job, only to find her efforts are in vain. She tries to maintain the facade of normalcy and happiness at home. Their daughter Jane has serious self-esteem issues and has been saving her babysitting money since ten “for a boob job”.
She desperately wants to be “pretty like Angela”. Add to this the new neighbours across the street: An Ex-Marine Corps who is obesessive about discipline, a semingly demented wife and their son Ricky, who has a flourishing drug-dealing business and is fresh out of a mental facility.
The film is choc-a-bloc with moments of startling insight. Ricky explaining the reason why he films(seemingly)everyday stuff, Lester starting to feel good about himself after quitting his job, Jane betraying a shadow of a smile after she sees Ricky compulsively filming her, Carolyn’s pathetic efforts to sell a house…….. these scenes are all carried off with a deft touch. They are very much satirical, yet somehow remain deeply sympathetic towards the characters. The quality of Alan Ball’s writing has to be commended here just as much as the obvious quality of Mendes’ vision.
What really is “ordinary” ? How far would one go to escape an “ordinary” life? Can beauty be found in the seemingly plain things of our everyday life? These are just some of the questions raised here. Twice in the film Angela, who desperately wants to be a model, says “The worst thing in life is to be ordinary”. But then we witness later on how insecure and ordinary she really is. There is much irony on display here, as the superbly done climax shows. Without giving out further spoilers, I would just say that this film is highly recommended for everyone.
The acting is of the highest order. Kevin Spacey shows why he is so highly regarded with a virtuoso performance as Lester Burnham, while Annette Bening is pitch-perfect as Carolyn Burnham. The other supporting acts are terrific too, with Wes Bentley standing out as Ricky, the apparent whack-job next door. To think that this was the debut for both writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes…… I had previously written about Mendes’ second film “Road To Perdition”, which I had enjoyed immensely, and I must say that my respect for his work has just shot through the roof. Now I’m gonna try and get my hands on “Jarhead” which was his third and latest film, released in 2005. Mendes fans are eagerly waiting for the Christmas release of “Revolutionary Road” in which he reunites the Titanic troika of Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates.