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American Beauty

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A mainstreamy, sitcommy version of Happiness, awash in splashy, trashy plot turns. Any movie whose opening line features a sulky teenage girl (in a grainy video image, but never mind that) saying directly into a camcorder, "I need a father who's a role model, not some horny geek-boy who's gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school," can confidently be judged to be trying too hard to make an impression. This bit, together with the ensuing dialogue between the girl and the off-screen camera operator about the possibility of murdering her father, will be reprised later in proper chronological sequence, but obviously the filmmakers (stage director and first-time screen director Sam Mendes, TV writer and first-time feature writer Alan Ball) thought they really had something there, and couldn't wait to spring it on us. Their next attention-getting device is borrowed from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, a first-person narrator whose voice comes to us from the Other Side: "I'm forty-two years old. In less than a year I'll be dead. Of course I don't know that yet." This character, the embodiment of Midlife Crisis, is the drop-out dad of our "typical" suburban family, in addition to, of course, the horny geek-boy of the opening line, nursing a bit of a Humbert Humbert thing for his daughter's prettier bosom buddy on the high-school cheerleading squad. (His obliquely surrealist fantasies of the girl -- a storm of rose petals pouring out of, and at the same time discreetly concealing, her bared breast -- somewhat obscure the issue. What sort of man has sex fantasies like these?) He is also, whatever we might think of his morals (or of his record-jacket aesthetics), the most engaging character in the movie, even though Kevin Spacey's loosey-gooseyness tends to smooth his path to rebellion: the uptightness of a young or a middle-aged Jack Lemmon might have made for more friction, more sparks. Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher. (1999) — Duncan Shepherd

Rated R | 1 hour, 58 minutes

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