Review 39: The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)


A good war film can render you speechless, shaken and heartbroken at the travesties that ensued. Anyone who has seen ‘Saving Private Ryan’ will know the gut-wrenching impact the recreation of the horrors can provoke (and that’s only the first twenty minutes). What is significant about William Wyler’s The Best Years of our Lives however, is that it brilliantly conveys the devastating impact of war on men young and old, but is not set in the trenches or battlefield.

The story follows three men of different ranks as they return to their families and attempt to reintegrate themselves into normality. Homer, who served on a warship, lost both his hands and now has to use hooks, which look positively medieval compared to the advanced artificial limb technology available today. He is scared that his fiancé and family won’t know how to handle it, and projects his own frustration and insecurity onto them, damaging their relationships . Fred, who was an award-winning air force captain is now forced to grovel for a job serving ice cream sundaes in a drug store. On top of that, his new wife is not who he thought she was, having married her hastily during his training days in Texas, when suffering from what I like to call iceberg syndrome: being so caught up in the perfect beauty, that he forgot he knew nothing about what was beneath the surface, which in this case turned out to be very little. Al, an infantry sergeant, returns to his family to find his two children have grown up without him. He spends the first night of his homecoming dragging his wife and daughter around every bar in town, alcohol being his major source of comfort. The war has ended, and people are keen and ready to move on. The young men who helped ensure the fate of WW2 need to get with the programme.


Although a key part of the plot is Fred’s growing attachment to Al’s daughter Peggy (played by Teresa Wright, who was also in William Wyler’s other best picture winning war film Mrs Miniver), the main focus is the appalling attitude America had towards its veterans and reminder that the end of the literal war meant the beginning of a new kind of fight for the men who dedicated the best years of their lives so others could keep there’s. It packs a punch nowadays so consider it’s significance the year of its release.

At almost three hours, the run-time is somewhat daunting, but in my opinion very bearable thanks to the great characters and acting (particularly Dana Andrews as Fred). Director Wyler has three best picture Oscars under his belt and the two I’ve reviewed deserve their place on his mantelpiece. We’ll see if he can pull of a hat-trick with Ben-Hur, which I’ve yet to watch.

Oscar or no Oscar though, this is an excellent film, and very much worth your time. If only the world honoured the men at the heart of this film as much as the academy did the pictures about them. The title refers to not what they experienced in war, but what they had stolen. And it’s largely thanks to them I’m having mine now.

Review 38: Ordinary People (1980)


The last time I encountered Robert Redford when writing this blog was when I reviewed Out of Africa, where he played rugged-cardboard-cut-out-hottie. In this film, his role is behind the camera as director, and I must say, it’s a significant improvement.

That said, Ordinary People is frequently seen as one of those films that in retrospect, really didn’t deserve best picture. The rightful winner in 1980, believed by many, was Scorcese’s stylistic, powerhouse biopic Raging Bull. Given that the beautifully shot story of Jake La Motta has stood the test of time much better that the story of the Jarvis/Jarrett family (I just watched the film and even I can’t remember), it’s difficult to refute this opinion.

Nonetheless, Ordinary People is a very fine film. The best way to describe would be kind of like American Beauty, if you took away the arty symbolism, sex, pretentious voiceover, paedophilic undertones and unlikable characters. You may think that sounds like the dullest film ever made, but bear with me. In actuality, Ordinary People is a raw, honest and poignant portrait of what goes on behind closed doors of a seemingly perfect home. A theme we’ve seem explored many times in this day and age, but was still relatively fresh then.

Indeed, the film has a purity and genuine feeling that makes it hold up well even now (I think). The story is certainly timeless. An ordinary family (well, ordinary rich family) has been struggling to cope since the death of their oldest child Buck. Mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) thrives on appearances, both for the sake of saving face and her own ability to hold things together. Understandable but damaging nonetheless. Son Conrad (Timothy Hutton – don’t worry if you don’t recognise the name, he pretty much vanished after this movie) is racked with guilt about what happened, and after a breakdown (that his mother does her best to sweep under the rug) finds solace in talking to a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch). Father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) attempts to mend the rift between his wife and child while coping with his own grief. Encircling this precarious household is the enchanting music of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, a perfect soundtrack: circular, and yet constantly growing more intense.

One thing I must praise this film for is that despite its highly emotional themes, it never goes overboard. The psychiatrist isn’t a Patch Adams-esque caricature, but human and the voice of reason, making Conrad’s moment of breakthrough extremely touching and believable. The mother isn’t merely evil and cold, just rather going about dealing with her pain in the entirely wrong way. The best thing about this film however is Donald Sutherland as the gentle, caring father. His character is played so authentically, and I think he above all deserved a nomination in best actor category, which he for some reason did not receive.

The ending will likely leave at least one tear glistening in your eye. It is somewhat ambiguous but arguably hopeful. I think this is the shortest review I have written to this date but little more needs to be said. Ordinary People isn’t a  spectacular film, but it has its extraordinary moments.

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Review 37: Rocky (1976)


For reasons too numerous and dull to list, I had more or less decided to stop writing this blog, and cheerfully resign from my quest to review every film to ever win best picture. However, one die-hard fan simply won’t let me quit. And it is for him mainly I will resume. Sylvester Stallone’s magnum opus Rocky seemed a fitting comeback. If there’s one thing even the hardest-hearted of critics can learn from it, it’s that you should persevere to the end, regardless of outcome.

If you blinked at my use of the phrase ‘magnum opus’, thinking it used a tad loosely, then we have different definitions of the term. For me, one’s magnum opus is a labour of love, a work of art (whether or not critics would deem it that) that in some way defines its maker, their life and/or life philosophy.  It literally translates as ‘great work’, insinuating that whoever made it put in great effort and delivered something that in their heart they know is great, and I personally do not think you can measure greatness by how many supposed experts give it their blessing. Stallone wrote, directed and (at his insistence) starred in this film. The sweat and blood on Rocky’s brow at the end of the film figuratively was on Stallone’s when he fought relentlessly to have it made. That’s greatness in itself.

Saying that, I do think Rocky is a pretty great film, and possibly even a masterpiece. The story is simple: an uneducated but streetwise and determined working class young man from Philadelphia named Rocky Balboa is a struggling amateur boxer. His day to day life is circular and somewhat bleak. Other than his fighting dreams, the three things that mean most to him are his pet turtles, his best friend Paulie (Burt Young) and Paulie’s sister Adrian (Talia Shire) , the object of Rocky’s affections. The relationship between the three characters is explored in detail. Paulie is overbearing and domineering to Adrian, frequently berating her for being a ‘loser’ due to her being a homebody crippled with shyness. He has to borderline throw her out the house before she’ll agree to go out with Rocky, an act he later rues. Rocky and Adrian’s relationship blossoms and this isn’t the only incredible change happening in Rocky’s life. World champion boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) has the mother of first-world problems: he’s too good and no one dares to fight him. This prompts him to make an interesting career move and undertake a clever PR exercise: give a total unknown raw talent the chance to challenge him and make boxing history. Do I really need to tell you who this lucky diamond in the rough is?Rocky_1_Adrian

A few critics of the time berated the film for being unrealistic, and I suppose it is. That said, it didn’t hinder my enjoyment in the slightest. For one, there is nothing wrong with films distorting reality a bit so that its viewers may escape it, and everyone needs to at times. If I wanted to face reality, I’d stop stalling and go downstairs to the drinking intervention awaiting me. Secondly, I consider myself much better at most at suspending disbelief. Not to sound vainglorious buts it’s a useful skill to have. I can’t be bothered with people who claim a single and often minor jumping-of-the-shark moment diminished the rest of a film for them. As I’ve said before, what a film’s about is not the same as what it’s really about. Rocky is about an underdog getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to alter his life. Rocky is really about determination, cherishing and supporting the ones you love, a lucky break happening to those who deserve it, and the true meaning of victory. It is from this perspective I choose to view the film.

I cannot deny that I absolutely love Rocky and Adrian as a couple, and it is with a minute sense of guilt I confess this largely influenced my positive reaction to the film. Frankly they are one of Hollywood’s most perfect couples. Maybe it’s because Adrian reminds me a little of what I was like when I was younger. Maybe its because my cursed girlish heart admittedly fell for Rocky… tall, dark, handsome, straight-talking, sweet, protective, loves animal, self-deprecating, determined and has the ability to to rise to a challenge that in his heart he fears will knock him down in agony. This may have hindered my objective critic’s vision. I am only human.

Rocky is so blindingly charming, in fact, that it distracted me from the fact that it beat two outstanding films, Network and Taxi Driver (my third favourite film of all time incidentally), in the best picture race. This is something that I should be enraged by and yet am curiously accepting of. I speculate that  film academy voters felt it was justice that Rocky was crowned an official champion of film, and part of me feels the same. People who aren’t afraid to lose (because they have so little) deserve to win. And though this is not how the world works 95% of the time, it’s kind of cool that the academy made Stallone’s own personal struggle to the top have a fairytale ending of sorts.

For this reason and many more, Rocky is a winner in the purest sense.






Review 36: Terms of Endearment (1983)


The blending of comedy and drama film is a tricky recipe to pull off, and some directors are better “chefs” than others. There’s a great danger of over seasoning with schmaltz, under seasoning the laughs and adding an unappetising dollop of cliché just to be safe. Garry Marshall for instance, has repeatedly burned and poisoned the formula with squirm-fests such as ‘Valentine’s Day’, ‘New Year’s Eve’, ‘Raising Helen’ and ‘Georgia Rule’. His better attempts (‘Beaches’, ‘Pretty Woman’) can only be called passable guilty pleasures. Thankfully though, I’m not reviewing a Garry Marshall movie.

Let me put it this way: if Hitchcock is the master of horror, then James L Brooks is the master of the comedy tearjerker. If you’re squinting at the name James L Brooks with the strange sensation of having seen it somewhere before numerous times yet it never having registered look no further than the picture below.


That’s right. Not only is Brooks an Oscar winning director but was also partly responsible for what is arguably the greatest TV comedy ever made. And, as anyone who is a Simpson’s fan will know, there’s plenty of genuine tear-jerking moments in the show. He’s seemingly got that rare touch.

Or at least did. His latest project ‘How Do You Know’ starring Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon tanked, and deepest condolences if you sat through it. I assure you though, when Brooks gets it right, it’s five star. Case in point: ‘Terms of Endearment’.

Let’s make this review interesting. Continuing my little recipe analogy, what are the ingredients of a perfect comedy-tearjerker that Brooks mixed together to produce this marvellous little film?

1) A straightforward, no-frills plot

‘Terms of Endearment’ revolves around the turbulent thirty year relationship between mother Aurora (Shirley Maclaine) and daughter Emma (Debra Winger). To her mother’s chagrin, Emma’s choice of husband is a man as bland and idiotic as his name – Flap (Jeff Daniels). Their relationship is strained further when Emma moves away, and Aurora is left with an empty life, no longer having Emma under her control. Not to mention she must face the fact she has no love life to speak of. Thankfully her new neighbour, sleazy playboy ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove (Jack Nicholson), may just prove an unexpected light in her life. As time passes, each of their relationships reach high and low points, flaws are exposed and life takes unexpected directions for them all. And then, one fairly normal morning, when Emma is at the doctor’s getting a flu shot, a lump is discovered in her armpit. It’s time to start coming to terms with each other for real.

2) Complex themes

The mother-daughter relationship is arguably the main plot thread. Aurora is overbearing, critical, prudish and dramatic. Emma is carefree, feisty, strong-willed and open. They dislike each other as much as they love one another. All the supporting characters and their relationships are significant and worth acknowledging too. Emma and Flap’s initial attitude to what marriage will be like is both naive and immature, and neither of them really grow up (particularly Flap). Motherhood doesn’t prove easy for Emma. Although a vastly different kind of mother than Aurora, her eldest child despises her. Garrett may seem like the mere comic relief but there is far more to his character – as even he is surprised to learn. All the characters wear their hearts and flaws on their sleeve. Many questions are invited by this film: why do we keep loving the people who hurt us? Why do people change yet somehow never grow? Is it our fault? Or is that just life?

3) Memorable, vivid characters and perfect casting

This film got four acting nominations and it’s no surprise. Shirley Maclaine and Debra Winger were both competing for best leading actress (Maclaine won). And Jack Nicholson and John Lithgow (who turns in a charming performance as Emma’s kind-hearted revenge lay) were up for best supporting actor –  Nicholson won that. I could rave about all the performances but would be here all day. Put simply, Nicholson is hilarious, Winger breaks your heart and Maclaine accomplishes both. Seriously, Shirley Maclaine is phenomenal in this film. For all Aurora’s infuriating character traits and less than tactful way of giving motherly advice (“You are not special enough to over come a bad marriage”), you somehow fall in love with her – much like Garrett does. She is too complex to not find endearing, and it rests on Maclaine’s performance. There’s debate whether Aurora is the mother from hell or one hell of a mother, and it’s a hard call for me to make. But for anyone who doubts Aurora genuinely loves her daughter – in whatever destructive, selfish way – the scene below should assuage that thought. On its own, it is powerful but in the context of the film it’s just heart-wrenching.

4) The drama is handled appropriately 5) the comedy is full on but reigned in as necessary (these two go hand in hand)

Terminal illness is handled very poorly in a lot of films. All too often it is a last-minute manipulative plot device inserted to give the illusion of true emotional substance. It comes out of left field, is portrayed completely inaccurately and even disrespectfully to sufferers (The most vomit-inducing instance I ever saw of this was without a doubt ‘A Walk to Remember’ – based on a book by Nicholas Sparks. Go figure). What is extraordinary about ‘Terms of Endearment’ is how poignantly realistic it is. It is sentimental in the most constrained way. I don’t know how he did it, but Brooks pulled off a film full of moments of sheer comedy that by the end leaves you crying your eyes out. And yet the subtlety and honesty of the film makes that emotional transition feel so natural. Because that’s life. One minute you’re laughing, the next you’re crying.

Verdict in a word: fan-fuckin-tastic.

(Oh and for the love of God, if you like this movie you MUST see James L Brook’s other home-run: ‘As Good as it Gets’)

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Review 35: You Can’t Take It With You (1938)

You Can't

When I’m stressed beyond the point of coping, watching an old black and white Hollywood comedy has the same calming effect on me as a bubble bath or mug of hot chocolate has on others. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the innocence of the humour (we have the tyrannical and homophobic Hayes Code to thank for that). Maybe it’s the light-hearted, guaranteed-to-have-a-happy-ending stories. Maybe it’s the soothing tones of Jimmy Stewart’s drawl.  The reason isn’t important. What matters is just over two hours ago I felt like chewing a live wire but am now perfectly placid thanks to movie magic.

Even prior to the meltdown this week brought upon me, I was excited to see this film purely due to the director. Frank Capra’s other works include big five winner ‘It Happened One Night’ (which I have reviewed on this blog) and Christmas family favourite ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ has all the warmth and smile-evoking moments you’d expect, which is just what I needed.

The film, adapted from a Pulitzer prize winning play, revolves around a young couple in love who come from very different backgrounds. Tony Kirby Jr (James Stewart) is the vice president of a Wall Street Banking company owned by his father Anthony Kirby Sr (Edward Arnold). Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) is a humble stenographer in the company. Despite the gap between their class and position in society, they remain unaffected by this fact and plan to get married. But as is often true in real life – especially in romances where class conflict  is involved – their in-laws ruin everything. Not only is Alice’s ‘lowly’ position a hot button issues for Mr and Mrs Kirby, but her somewhat zany family aren’t winning favour either. Their life philosophy is all play and no work. The head of the extensive household is Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) whom everyone in the neighbourhood as well as family knows as Granddad. He quit his high-pressure job years ago once he realised he wasn’t having any fun, and encouraged his family to pursue the true joy found in the simplicities of life – singing, dancing, painting, inventing and generally creating happy memories with loved ones. Unlike the Kirby’s who live the dream of success and wealth, Granddad’s circus lives the dream of doing whatever they want. You can probably see where this is going having been weaned on Hollywood tropes all your life. Things quite literally get comically explosive when the two family’s meet, but ultimately everyone emerges a wiser person. Let cliché ring.

The charm of Capra’s films were appreciated in his time as well, and ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ was awarded best picture in 1938. Makes sense. It’s funny, has great characters, the film-making is swell, and it contains a both uplifting and valuable message to take from it.

Well, maybe I do have one complaint. Just one though. A teeny tiny wee one. Maybe a little bigger than that actually. Quite a grating one. I won’t lie, I have my doubts about this being a ‘best’ picture per se, not to mention stunned that the text it was adapted from won a Pulitzer. Okay I can either brush it aside, round this short review off on a positive note regardless and go have a beer…or I could rant for 600 more words about the negative aspects of the film.

This film is ridiculous. I appreciate the film is supposed to to be a screwball comedy but nonetheless its themes are serious. Class conflict and clashing families are such relevant and relatable themes yet they’re so seldom handled in a realistic, dramatic way. I’m not saying comedy can’t speak volumes but I wish this movie had toned down the screwball. Furthermore, the two families are very extreme and there’s no question of which one we are supposed to like. The Kirby’s are unapologetic, workaholic, money-focussed snobs. The Vanderhof’s are loveable, genuine, quirky and kind. They’ve practically got their own entourage of fans. I’ve no qualms about making a family of snobs the villain, but it would be much more effective if they weren’t such caricatures. Full disclosure: as someone from a working class background who was fortunate enough to make it to St Andrew’s University, I have networked with my fair share of snobs. And let me tell you, the worst kind of snob isn’t the what-are-your-people-in type, but rather the indirect snob. The seemingly likeable and modest one that behind their façade hides political ignorance and arrogance that you only pick up on if you understand the struggles of the working-class. The kind that thinks they have the right to dismiss the concerns of members of society they’ve barely associated with, let alone lived among. The sort who doesn’t realise how damaging and hurtful their attitude can be because they are honestly blind to it. And one gets the feeling that even if they did realise their blindness, they wouldn’t give a shit.

Forgive me, but living in a country where Eton-boy pricks rule and people still think the Royal Family has value beyond being a great tourist attraction can make a person weary.

The film actually plays down the class issue and plays up the clashing family values thing more. This is perfectly fine, and is I would concede something 99% of people can relate to. And despite my criticism, I must reinforce that I really liked this film. My favourite part was without a doubt when Alice had an epiphany that I myself had not long ago. When you meet your significant other’s family it’s easy to feel inferior, especially, if like me, your partner does happen to be from a different class. Putting aside class though, you might, like Alice, start to worry about whether your dysfunctional  family is good enough or worthy enough. Suddenly they start to resemble the Barones from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’. You suddenly wish you could give them a normality makeover.

But then, you have a realisation, sometimes through a blow-out argument or sometimes through just getting over your insecurities. And you realise that you and your family are good enough, in fact, that the word ‘enough’ has no right to be in this sentence. It applies to all relationships in life – we get so caught in whether we’re worthy enough for someone we forget to ask if they’re worthy enough for us.

The unique values your family instilled in you (however zany or unlike your S.O’s) made you the person you are; a person your S.O. adores. And at the end of the day, the only two people that matter are you and your partner, and the values you’ll share and build on together.

This review got a lot deeper than I intended. So I guess this cheerful little comedy affected me far more than I realised. For the wrong reasons possibly – not due to its substance but rather lack thereof. But whatever. I’m not sure this is a Best Picture – there’s no way nowadays it would win – but it’s definitely a really great fun one.

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Review 34: Cimarron (1931)


Just a heads up: this is going to be the worst review I’ve written so far. Not worst as in the film’s quality (although I did hate this film) nor worst as in the quality of my writing – I’ll be as wry and witty as ever I assure you. No, worst in the sense that by definition this article can barely qualify as a review, because I honestly don’t know what the hell to say.

When I was a child I remember my parents reminiscing about the old, classic films they’d watched as children at Christmas and such, and insisting my brother and I one day see these great, irreplaceable oldies ourselves. Films like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Citizen Kane’ and many others. Anyway, of the countless recommendations they offered, I don’t recall ‘Cimarron’ being amongst them, and for good reason. Full disclosure: I am a complete ignoramus regarding the western genre. And I am this partly by choice, as I have little to no interest in it. If you asked me to name a famous cowboy, I’d say Woody from the ‘Toy Story’ films. In fairness, the western film has more or less diminished, although there have been occasional and largely cringey attempts to bring it back – ‘The Lone Ranger’, ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ etc. The genre’s best hope of revival  is Tarantino, who gave it a splendid makeover in ‘Django Unchained’ and fingers crossed, will have another hit with ‘The Hateful Eight’.

If you suspect I’m try to stall the actual review with yammering, you’re correct. Okay, let’s start with the plot. From what I can gather the film is set in 1889 during something called The Oklahoma Land Rush, where thousands of hopeful American fled to seize free land. The main character Yancy, is pipped to the post by a prostitute, who grabs the property he wanted. He decides to move his family to I guess what’s known in cowboy dialect as a one-horse town. As is expected , he gets into a few shoot outs. After cleaning up, he then decides to move again, this time to land that previously belonged to native Americans, until the government gave them some magic beans and told them to get lost. His wife stays and runs the newspaper Yancy owned, while he settles the Cherokee strip. He swans back a short five years later, the length of time I felt I’d been watching this film. The prostitute he shared six minutes maximum screen time with is on trial for public nudity, and for some reason he goes all Atticus Finch on us and defends her. Then some other stuff happens involving gratuitous social commentary on prejudice towards the Indians. I’m going to end the synopsis here, partly because I don’t want to spoil the entire picture but mainly because I’m getting beyond pissed off regurgitating these two hours of boredom.

One thing I will say that really didn’t help my viewing experience was the god-awful sound quality of the copy I watched, the only one I have access to. I mean, not only was it poor, it had that weird fizzing distortion that sounds like heavy rain pounding off sheet metal. I’m not saying without that I would have liked the film itself any better, but I probably wouldn’t have been driven to the state of catatonia I was.

(Oh, you may have noticed I’ve not mentioned any actors that starred in it, or the director. Yeah, that’s because I don’t care. I honestly couldn’t give less of a fuck. Wikipedia it if you’re desperate to know.)

So here’s the problem I have. As much as I hated this film, I can’t call it bad. It’s very much a film of it’s time – cowboys back then were as trendy as zombies are now. Plus, in it’s time it would have been considered a blockbuster or an epic. There’s a reason it isn’t held in the same esteem as the aforementioned classic films: it’s not classic. It’s not timeless. The same way I highly doubt ‘Avatar’ will be in 80 years. But it wowed critics and audiences in its time, so good for it.  I’m not grasping at straws for positive commentary, I’m just trying to be reasonable and keep things in context.

Thankfully, this was the only western film to win best picture, so I’m spared any further hell. Oh that is, unless you count ‘Dances With Wolves’ made in 1991, which I am looking forward to immensely. What’s that? Kevin Costner’s the director? Oh well, I remain optimistic. His skills as a director must surpass his skills as an actor. Huh? He stars in it too? FML.

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PS. There was a remake in 1961 that may be more tolerable. If you ever see it let me know.

Review 33: American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty (1999) Mena Suvari (as Angela Hayes)

This film blows my mind, but not in the way you’d assume i.e. the way it did viewers and critics when released. Rather it evokes a reaction that no other film that I can think of does. See, it’s one thing to be unsure whether a film is good or not (‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ – I loved it but seriously doubt its actual quality). It’s one, albeit rarer, thing to be unsure whether you like a film or not (‘The Accused’ – a great film I thoroughly recommend but can’t say I really enjoyed the viewing experience). It is another thing entirely though to be unsure how much you like a film. This is the conundrum Sam Mendes’s ‘American Beauty’ puts me in: I like this film, that I am sure…but how much and for what reason(s)? The tagline instructs you to ‘LOOK CLOSER’. Challenge accepted.

Most would describe the film as a drama, a genre which covers everything from ‘The Notebook’ to ‘Philadelphia’. Very helpful. Others might refer to it as a black comedy – a term which nowadays can be loosely translated as a funny film where someone dies and/or makes you use your brain and engage emotionally. This now I think about it is actually quite a fair way of describing ‘American Beauty’. In lieu of a synopsis I’ve decided it would be better to give a character list as, although some are far more prominent than others, fundamentally the film is about the hell that goes on behind the close doors of seemingly blissful suburbia. And I would argue there is no one plot, rather many separate ones that thread together to paint a collective picture of the American dream gone wrong.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey): a middle-aged man who has lost the will to live. Not in a suicidal way, more in a going-through-the-motions of crippling emptiness way. His mojo is abruptly awakened when he forms an intense infatuation with his 16 year old daughter’s best friend Angela. Don’t worry, it’s not creepy/paedophilic as long as his fantasies are portrayed incredibly artfully. This new surge of life inspires him to quit his creativity-numbing job and relive his teenage years of pot-smoking and serial masturbation. Believe it or not, this is the hero of the film.

Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening): Lester’s high strung, materialistic and secretly desperate wife. Her real estate business is floundering and her marriage is as dead as fried chicken. While Lester is beating off to his Lolita-esque* fantasy, she finds salvation in an affair with career-rival Buddy, seemingly having bought in to the notion – that if you’re a stressed out woman, a man’s penis is all you need to fix your problems – the media so enjoys force-feeding us.

Jane Burnham (Thora Birch): Lester and Carolyn’s daughter. At first glance an angsty, insecure teen but turns out to be more complex than that (LOOK…….CLOSER). She dislikes her mother and abhors her father (in fairness, he all but dry-humps her best friend right in front of her and accuses her of “being a real bitch just like her mother” when she has the audacity to ask him not to sleep with her underage best friend) She plays the plain, subservient friend when with Angela but allows her own uniqueness and beauty to flourish after forming a relationship with her rumoured-to-be-crazy neighbour Ricky.

Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari): the obscenely beautiful focus of Lester’s fantasy (which she encourages for all she’s worth). Much like Jane, Angela’s surface appearance in deceptive. Her vanity, self-assurance and attention-seeking ways cover up a secret terror of being ‘ordinary’.

Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley): The Burnham’s neighbour and Jane’s classmate. Mysterious, poetic and perceptive…although probably not as much as he (or screenwriter Alan Ball) think. Having supposedly just got out of a mental institution, Ricky has moved back in with his parents (who would benefit from a stint in there as well to be honest), and is watched like a hawk by his tyrannical and obsessive father. Not closely enough though, as along with his unorthodox hobby of filming everything – from unsuspecting people to plastic bags blowing in the wind – he makes a fortune as a drug dealer.

Col Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper): Ricky’s aggressive, old-school, ex-marine, homophobic father. That’s really all there is to him…or so it seems. Blah look blah closer.

I know there’s other characters but I’ve covered the main ones and hopefully in doing so conveyed the numerous themes and strands that run throughout the film. There is no villain in the film. Or rather, every character has hateful qualities. Perhaps one could argue each character is their own antagonist, just as we all are in life. Or maybe materialism and the illusion is the true villain. I don’t really care to be honest. There are so many theories and interpretations you could apply to this film, a popular one being ‘pretentious crap’. This I disagree with. For me, pretentious is something that thinks it’s saying a whole load of meaningful stuff through symbolism and metaphor but in fact is cryptic, indulgent garbage. ‘American Beauty’ though artful, is explicit and accessible. It’s imagery has all the subtlety of the Jesus allusions in ‘Man of Steel’ for God’s sake.

That’s not to say it isn’t laughable at some points. It is an intentionally funny film but there’s a few times I snickered for the wrong reasons during my recent viewing. The plastic bag scene is a little eye roll-inducing now, as is Lester’s epilogue. And I lost it over Lester’s “it’s just a couch!” outburst at Carolyn. It just seemed so uncalled for – the poor lady had a point, it was a damn nice couch and he was going to spill beer on it.

That said, the film definitely packs most of it’s emotional punches well. Carolyn’s private meltdown after failing to sell the house is extraordinarily uncomfortable and saddening to watch. The final fifteen minutes of the film are excellent, I’d even go so far as to use words like exquisite and haunting in some moments. All the actors are faultless, and I must say, there’s a tonality to this film – dark yet uplifting, haunting but hilarious, relatable but twisted – that I’ve never seen captured in any other.

How much do I like this film? I can’t give an official measurement. “Rather a lot” is about as specific as I can get. All I can conclude is that I like it for all the right reasons and all the wrong reasons. When it’s good, it’s fantastic film-making in it’s truest sense, when it’s bad, it’s still brilliantly entertaining. No doubt some will find my personal reading of the film inaccurate or flawed. If this is the case, maybe you just need to LOOK CLOSER. Or write your own review. Whatever. One thing this film has taught me is that Lester’s “haters gon’ hate” attitude is crucial to living your life happily.

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*Lester Burnham is an anagram for ‘Humbert Learns’