tek's rating: ¾

American Beauty (R)
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Caution: potential spoilers.

So. This movie got a bunch of awards and was a major critical success, and whatnot. Came out in 1999, I guess, but I didn't see it til 2012. And for most of the time that I was watching the DVD, I was thinking I'd probably include my review in the "weird" category, but in the end, I decided to include it under "art films," instead. It's... one of the most depressing and disturbing movies I've ever seen, or at least most of it was. The end was actually pretty good, and oddly uplifting. But still quite dark. I mean, not the very end, the uplifting part was light, but it was rooted in the darkness of all that came before it, particularly the extremely dark part that came right before the end.

The movie starts with a girl named Jane (Thora Birch) being filmed by her boyfriend, Ricky. She's talking about how much she hates her dad, and says "someone should put him out of his misery." At which point Ricky offers to kill him for her. After that, we see an apparently idyllic suburban setting, while hearing voiceover narration by Jane's father, Lester... who sounds rather upbeat, even while telling us that he's dead. Most of the movie is about showing us the strange mix of events that led to his death, and we'll hear his upbeat narration again at the very end.

Anyway. Lester hates his job. He has a wife named Carolyn (Annette Bening), who, it will soon become clear, is very depressed about the fact that her own career, selling houses, isn't as successful as she'd like. (Her competitor is far more successful.) Meanwhile, Lester and Carolyn were apparently once quite happy together, but they've drifted apart, and now their marriage is pretty much just something they keep up for appearances, or whatever. And neither of them has as close a relationship with their daughter as they'd like. Jane, meanwhile, hates both of them. And she has a best friend named Angela (Mena Suvari), who wants to be a model. They're both cheerleaders, and when Jane's parents go to a high school basketball game or whatever, to see Jane perform, Lester is immediately infatuated by Angela. Which of course only serves to make Jane hate him more. But also, it's clear her friendship with Angela isn't really that great, because of the way Angela acts and talks. Especially when she acts flirtatiously with Lester.

Meanwhile, a new family just moved into the house next door. The father is a former Marine named Frank. He's clearly a homophobe, and not a good father. His wife is... I don't really know what's wrong with her, but most of the time she seems barely conscious. Their son, Ricky, is rather odd. And according to Angela, he'd been in a mental hospital. He's always filming things... including Jane. It's kinda creepy, but she soon becomes fascinated by him, probably in large part because he seems to be the only one who's really interested in her (and not interested in Angela). I could see how his interest might be flattering, but on the other hand, some of the other things he thinks are beautiful are a bit disturbing. Not so much the empty bag dancing in the wind (who hasn't been at least momentarily mesmerized by such a thing?), but he does seem to have a fascination with death. So I'm not so sure his finding Jane beautiful is necessarily flattering, in that context. (But she is, so I'll let it slide.)

Anyway, it soon turns out that Ricky deals marijuana, and ends up selling some to Lester, who is clearly going through a mid-life crisis, trying to relive his youth. This is inspired dually by his totally inappropriate (but totally understandable) crush on Angela, and his budding friendship with Ricky (pun intended, btw). He decides to quit his job, and basically just tries to be happy, for a change. Which could be good in some ways, and not so good in others. Meanwhile, Carolyn goes through a crisis of her own, which leads to her own poor choices. I don't want to provide specific details of what either of them do wrong, but I think if everyone in the damn movie would stop worrying about appearances, they could really be happy. There are indications of why Lester and Carolyn fell in love in the first place, and I wanted them to get that back, but... eh. People are stupid. Listen, I don't want to say any more about the plot. There are plenty of developments I haven't mentioned, but you have the basic setup. The only other thing I really need to say is that the movie's tagline is "...look closer," and it's definitely appropriate. It's about more than just looking past the idyllic appearances of life in suburbia, or a seemingly happy family. It's about looking past the surface of the individual characters, as well. Plenty of things are not what they seem. Particularly in regards to two characters, in my opinion. One is Ricky's father... I guessed the truth about him shortly before it was made clear, but maybe I should have seen it sooner. It's kind of a cliche, but cliches exist for a reason. And I was too caught up in hating him to see it. The same goes for Angela, another character I couldn't help hating, until it became clear, as I should have seen all along, that... she wasn't what she seemed, and probably more deserving of sympathy than any of the other characters.

But really, everyone's deserving of sympathy, because everyone's life pretty much sucks, in any number of ways. And at the same time, everyone's deserving of reproach. Probably none more so than Lester, in spite of his being the protagonist. I should also mention that, since we knew from the very beginning that he was going to die, there was the question of just how it would happen. The scene from the beginning of the movie is repeated, eventually, but it's not clear from that that Ricky or Jane will have anything to do with his death, at least not directly. It could be one or both of them that kill him. Or it could be Carolyn. Or Frank. Hell, maybe he'd kill himself. Any one of these scenarios (and possibly others) are perfectly plausible. In fact, for all we know (up until the end), his death might have turned out to be from natural causes, or something. It's all a bit of a mystery. But we do eventually see the truth. Anyway, I will just say that, shortly before his death, he very nearly did something one can't help but dread throughout the movie... but in the end, he had his redemption, his epiphany, or whatever, and... while what happens next is tragic, we're soon treated to the upbeat closing narration, as I mentioned before.

Anyway, it's a very clever, insightful, well-acted movie, with interesting characters, drama, a bit of humor, and a satisfying ending. It really is a good movie, worthy of the accolades it received... but at the same time, it's just too dark and disturbing, for the most part, for me to really like it that much. I feel kinda bad about that, but it can't be helped.

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