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American Beauty (1999) – 1

Written by Alan Ball. Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, and Chris Cooper. 122 mins. Rated R (graphic language and sexual situations).

So mid-life Lester (Kevin Spacey) has got himself into a horrible, very bad fix. Though a husband and father, he has fallen, as through a trap-door, into a state of protracted, besotted desire–plain old monomaniacal lust–and this for the blonde, potty-mouthed nymphette Angela (Mena Suvari), who is no angel, or so she brags. She is also the best friend of his only child, the rather staid, very plain-Jane daughter who is named Jane (Thora Birch). Predictably, Lester’s crazed detour ends in disasters moral, relational, and personal (as if one could tease these three apart). Still, against all odds, a sudden recognition late in the film of the heinous reality of the crime Lester has been yearning to commit (statutory rape) wakes him up—at last and just in time. Alas, the temptress proves but a waif, a very fragile child desperately in need of adult concern. Not only that, though, Lester finally gets some actual real sense—about a lot of things, especially life and family. In an instant, he flips from Lester the Molester to protector of his prey, of a sudden clothing, feeding, and actually caring for her.

And then also, wholly unforeseeably, to profoundly grateful husband and father, roles he had grown tired of well before the misguided teem vamp Angela showed up. Lester’s focus instantly moves from a contrived bogus beauty to the real thing, to real actual-factual beauty, the simple radiance of being alive, the first and everlasting. To amply show Lester’s radical shift, director Mendes sends Lester across the kitchen to a framed photo of his laughing family at a carnival, which is not a bad image for life, especially in the traditional sense of the word (1:50:43-1:51:30). At last, Lester actually beholds his family, seeing them as for the first time, and now, fittingly, he is over-filled with profoundest wonder and gratitude. And with reverence beyond words’s capacity to express–“Man, oh man, oh man”–the rightest words he’s ever uttered, and full of the deepest imaginable awe and, yes, adoration for the irreplaceable. And then, in that moment, the end comes, not just of the movie, but Lester’s own end to living. Alas, in voiceover post-mortem postscript, Lester recounts the glowing elements of his life, though those are intercut, sometimes starkly, with the moment of his murder as heard and seen by others. And through it all, Lester speaks from within the same realm of clear-sightedness inhabited by neighbor boy Ricky Fitts (1:53:04-1:55:54). Beauty, albeit commonplace and ordinary, dazzles and confounds: “sometimes it’s too much, [my] heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst,” and joy “flows through me like rain, and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life,” a recognition, he assures the audience, that they will come to know deep-down “someday.” Inscribe that on the pulpit. And the dance of wonder goes on, and on. Amen.

written by Roy Anker

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