We gave it an A-
When the most lionized movie of the year comes to video a month or two after walking off with an armful of Oscars…well, it’s hard not to see the flaws on a second viewing of American Beauty. Sure, there are suburban matrons as tightly wound as Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening), or ex-Marines as violently repressed as Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), but the film still uses them as satirical crutches. The evisceration of middle-class propriety leans toward smugness, and haven’t we been here before, in movies from Peyton Place to The Ice Storm? Finally, does there really have to be a murder at film’s end? Wouldn’t it be braver, less dramatically convenient, to let these lives unravel on?
Okay, stop. Play it again and notice all the stuff that works, from Kevin Spacey’s marvelously entertaining performance as Babbitt Unbound to the film’s faith in the constant inner divinity of things. There’s the famous dancing plastic bag, of course, but I’m thinking of the scene where Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) zooms his video cam through the window across the way and catches—and shares with us—the ghostly, hidden smile of plain Jane Burnham (Thora Birch). That’s the real beauty of this film, and it isn’t just American. A-