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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

American Beauty (1999)



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American Beauty is not unlike a movie Billy Wilder might make, were he still making movies today. It's set in suburban America and penetrates beneath the surface gloss to the dark passions and obsessions lying repressed. American Beauty is all about the masks we wear. All of the supporting characters cope with masks: they're wearing them, they're coping with them, or they've conscientiously shed them entirely. Annette Bening's character is all about surface appearance: she sells real estate, and for her job she must exude the front of happy normalcy. Another character, a kid next door, has become experienced in putting on the mask his abusive father requires him to wear. The main character, Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, one day subconsciously realizes that living beneath a labyrinth of show and false fronts is killing him.

It is almost poetic the way American Beauty unfolds. The interaction between the characters is complex, but it isn't until the movie is over that one realizes how much went into it and, more importantly, how effectively the story elements work together as a study of the the film's theme.

So what's under those masks? They're right in front of our face -- but we've become so accustomed to donning masks and accepting the masks of others that each unmasking is a surprise. Alas, however, as American Beauty illustrates, we are so dependent on our masks that having them stripped away before we are ready draws out the worst in each of us. Ugly things can happen when we feel naked and vulnerable. Yet, it is American Beauty's contention, becoming naked and vulnerable is the only way to be at ease with ourselves.