Drug War Prisoners



Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Alan Ball
Cinematography by Conrad Hall
Music by Thomas Newman
Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
Rated R
It may be thought strange that a popular motion picture should be selected for review on a web site devoted to prisoners of the War on Drugs. Dubbed by the critics a dark commentary on American society with its dysfunctional families and habitual violence, American Beauty is that - but a lot more besides.
Its six main characters could easily be charged with criminal offenses, three for distributing or conspiring to distribute an illegal drug, and three for possession of a firearm with intent to commit a felony, juvenile delinquency, and child abuse. Yet not until near the end of the picture where a crazy wife, Carolyn Burnham (played by Annette Bening), drives home to shoot her eminently sane husband, Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey), is it clear that any will be hauled into court, or in the case of the trio of potential Drug War prisoners whether they deserve to be.
Portrayal of character is carried to an extreme that borders on caricature. The Burnham family consists of a mother-father-daughter triangle that splits in three directions. Under stress from her suburban lifestyle, Carolyn finds the answer to her problems in the National Rifle Association and a perverted form of feminism which she frantically gives voice to -- "I will not be a victim" -- on her way home to kill Lester. Jane Burnham (played by Thora Birch) finds redemption in an under-age sexual liaison with the guy next door who happens to deal grass. Lester, who is already dead at the opening scene and narrates his story from the perspective of an after-life, plunges into an exaggerated mid-life crisis with fantasies of making out with Jane's cheer-leader friend Angela (an "American Beauty" played boisterously by Mena Suvari), and escapes from his obsession minutes before being shot through insight he has gained by smoking weed.
The triangle next door consists of father-mother-son. The dad is Colonel Fitts (crazy fits? played by Chris Cooper), retired US Marine and a sadist of remarkable brutality. Father Fitts knocks out his teen-age son when he discovers that Ricky has tampered with his collection of Nazi regalia. Ricky showed his next-door girlfriend Jane the dinner plate his dad has that belonged to Hitler. Ricky Fitts (played by Wes Bentley), virtuous hero of the picture, makes a decent living selling marijuana. Rescued from the family's insanity by his use of herb, Ricky has endured a two-year stint of psychiatric lock-up on his father's say-so, and wriggles out of the hazard of piss testing by substituting a plastic container with clean urine for the container his dad now shoves at him without warning. As if Dad's screwed up life is not sufficiently depicted, Colonel Fitts turns out to be a furtive homosexual who tries to plant a kiss on next-door neighbor Lester. Mom (played by Allison Janney) is a passive witness to all this.
What gives? And who or what is the American Beauty of the film's title? Jane's best friend Angela boasts of having men right, left, and center. Her school-age sexual appetite is supposed to be insatiable, until Lester and the movie's audience discover that her prowess is a fake. Angela will prance and cavort to cater to Jane's dad's lust, but coming to the point confesses that despite appearances she has never gone the distance. But is the conventionally pretty Angela the real American Beauty? It appears not. Decked in non-existent roses that descend in Lester's florid imagination, Angela turns out to be a sorry specimen. She lies, she manipulates, she's selfish, and she dumps her best friend Jane in Jane's hour of need.
The beauty in American Beauty is a different kind of beauty altogether. It's the transcendent beauty seen in Ricky the marijuana dealer's vision of the world. Extraordinary in the vitality of its filming, the most ordinary of objects, an empty plastic garbage bag, floats in a gusty breeze, swells, swoops, balloons to new heights, suspends in a sequence the audience hardly believes can stretch to the length it does. A minute? Two minutes? Time vanishes before the viewer's eyes. In case the viewer fails to get the point, Ricky tells Jane, to whom he discloses the real meaning of the vision he has caught on video, that beauty transcends the sordid everyday. The real American beauty - get this! - is found in the experience of smoking marijuana.
Who smokes? The good guys: Ricky who deals, Jane who elopes with Ricky, Lester who pulls through his insane obsession with Ricky's help. Who doesn't smoke? The bad guys: the evil Colonel, the murderous Carolyn. Who's innocent? Who's guilty? The question is deftly left up to the audience.
The Hollywood Reporter reports that American Beauty received eight nominations for this year's Academy Awards, topping all other pictures on the list. What does this say about the sense of the Hollywood community? Biting, sardonic, yet loving and tender in its portrayal of an American society embattled by a War on Drugs that locks up half a million Jane Burnhams and Ricky Fitts, American Beauty says as plainly as it is possible to say that the prosecutors of the Drug War have got their values upside down. To judge from the picture's popularity across the country, a lot of Americans agree.
Top quality direction, writing, musical score, and cinematography serve the picture's thematic principle well. A must see for anyone who wants the straight "dope" on the War on Drugs.

Note: Shortly after this review was written, American Beauty received the following Academy Awards:

Best Picture
Best Director: Sam Mendes
Best Actor: Kevin Spacey
Best Original Screenplay: Alan Ball
Best Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall



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