Once the white picket fence goes up, consider your life over.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is going through a bit of a midlife crisis. He’s 42, in a marriage to his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), that hasn’t been passionate or loving in many years; works at a magazine that he despises has a daughter named Jane (Thora Birch) who, despite living with and seeing everyday, doesn’t actually know; and her wannabe-model friend, Angela (Mena Suvari) catches his eye and all of a sudden, he can’t stop himself from having fantasies about her. Eventually, all of this tension and turmoil in his life leaves him to just say to hell with it all and do whatever the hell he feels like doing! That means, not only does he quit his job, but he gets back onto smoking pot, drinking, talking dirty to his wife, and most importantly, lifting and getting back into shape. Meanwhile, everyone else around him is trying to work with their own lives, and some definitely succeed more than others. Carolyn’s trying to make her real estate agent career work, whereas Jane has taken up with the new neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who films stuff he finds “interesting”, sells pot to Lester, and has to deal with an overly-oppressive father (Chris Cooper). And through all of their troubles, they try their hardest to achieve happiness and realize the beauty in life, underneath all the material and glamour.
There’s been so much said about American Beauty that, by now, that’s it hard to say anything really new, or better yet, ground-breaking about it. For one, it’s a great movie – there’s no denying that fact. Secondly, it’s one that helped spear-head the careers of director Sam Mendes, as well as writer Alan Ball, both who have gone on to do great, amazing things with their careers. And also, I can’t forget to mention that, you know, it’s one of those rare, small, indie-based flicks that won a whole lot of Oscars, earned plenty of respect, and also, changed the game of indie cinema and how these big award shows look at them.
Oh yeah, and it’s one of my favorites of all time. However, that’s neither here, nor there.
But even after all these years (15, to be exact), there’s still something that stays relevant in today’s day and age. Back before ’99, it wasn’t out-of-this-world to have a movie satirize the suburbs, the people who lived in them, and the general mind-set that came with being apart of a little world like that. Not much has changed on that front since, either, but still, what American Beauty was setting out to do, or say, wasn’t really revolutionary; it was more in how the movie actually went a bit deeper and further into its subjects that sets it apart from the rest of “suburban malaise” subgenre of film that, quite frankly, got pretty old once people realized they all had the same message: The suburbs suck.
Move on, already!
But like I said, Ball’s screenplay shoots for something much more meaningful than just saying, “People in the suburbs aren’t really happy, no matter how hard they try to make themselves think that”, and leaving it at that. Nope, Ball, as well as Mendes, are both a lot smarter than that and find interesting ways to tell these characters, as well as their stories, in fun, fresh ways that they’re not only hilarious, but at times, pretty heartfelt. While at one moment, we may sneer at a character for being so wrapped-up in materialistic crap that doesn’t at all matter, the next moment, we’ll see a character reveal a fact about their life that not only makes you a bit misty, but also gives you something to take in about those characters.
This is all to say that while, for the longest time, it may appear as such, American Beauty isn’t filled with a bunch of soulless, comical caricatures that are just there for us to point at and make fun of. On the surface, they may appear as such, but once you look a little bit closer (I know I’m sort of referencing the tag-line, but trust me, it isn’t on purpose), you realize that they are actual human beings; ones who breath, think, talk, and act like you or I. They may live in a different situation, or have more experience in one walk of life or another, but they’re still humans none the less that deserve to be seen as such, and it’s here that Ball’s writing really wins points.
While Ball is opening up this world and dissecting it, he’s also showing us that there’s more to it, as well as life. Lester is the perfect example of this fact because, despite living a grudgingly boring, monotonous life, he’s finally woken-up, smelled the daises, and realized that over-priced couches are what matter most in life – it’s the people you love and the time you spend with them that do! That’s why, despite Lester seemingly doing a lot of downhill things, he’s still the heart and soul of this story who, no matter what decisions he may make throughout, we still support and sympathize with him because, quite frankly, we too want him to feel happier and embrace life more to its fullest.
And honestly, there isn’t a more perfect bit of casting for Lester Burnham than Kevin Spacey.
Spacey, even before American Beauty and definitely after, has always seemed like the smartest guy in every scene he’s in. There always seems to be something on his mind that he wants to blurt out, but he chooses not to, so as a way to keep to himself for his own personal enjoyment. That’s why Lester, before and after his transformation, always feels like a real person that we could actually meet; he understands that the world he’s been surrounded by isn’t “real” and isn’t worth getting sucked-up into. So, he goes against the tide and it’s hard to not be satisfied with everything he does.
Lester throws a plate against the wall; tries to have sex with his wife in the middle of the day; gets caught masturbating in the bed; quits his relatively fine paying-job, only to then take up as a fry-cook at a fast-food joint; buys off of and smokes pot with his neighbor; and above the rest, can’t help but have really hard feelings for his daughter’s friend. Once again, these may seem like choices an unlikable person would make, but because of the way Lester’s written, and the way Spacey portrays him so wonderfully, we’re constantly rooting for him.
So yeah, in a nutshell, Kevin Spacey definitely deserved the Oscar he won that year.
However, he isn’t the only one who puts stellar work in here.
Annette Bening may get a more of an over-the-top role to play, but because she’s so talented, is able to find certain shadings of humanity that makes us feel bad for her, even if we don’t whole heartedly wish her to be quite as happy as Lester. Thora Birch, despite playing a misanthropic teen a whole lot better a few years later in Ghost World, is still great here as Jane, Lester and Carolyn’s kid who just wants nothing more than for them to stop embarrassing the hell out of her and leave her be. While some of her line-reads are a bit awkward, it works for her character because, like most teens her age, they’re socially awkward as hell. Mena Suvari’s Angela is also a very interesting character because while she is, in ways, a preppy, popular girl, she still hangs around with Jane. Sure, some of this may to make herself feel better, but whatever it is, it doesn’t feel wholly fake or unbelievable, which is why when the character does get a nice dose of reality, it feels deserved and helps allow us to understand this character a bit more.
And yeah, there’s also Wes Bentley as the weird kid next door who, in all honesty, may not be all that weird, Ricky. Bentley has that perfect blend between being both incredibly off-kilter, but also, like Spacey, seem like the smartest dude in the room who is just waiting for that mic to drop down from the sky, so he can just air out all of his thoughts. He and Birch have a nice little chemistry between one another that’s a big part of the movie, but also doesn’t take it over too much to where it’s just a romance about teenagers and that’s it. Though I can’t say the same for Birch, it’s nice to see Bentley back to doing movies and showing the world just the type of talent that he still is, even all these many years later.
Also, worth mentioning here is Chris Cooper who gets one of the more creepier roles in the flick as Ricky’s dad, Col. Frank Fitts. While Fitts is insanely strict dad, there’s also something about him that’s inherently interesting to sit by and watch; though he may over-do it, in no way does he feel like he’s being a bad dad, just over-protective. We come to understand more about this character and his history, but through it all, Cooper remains chilling and scary just about every second. Which makes us wonder more about Allison Janney’s wife character who, honestly, we still have no clue about these years later.
And there’s more to talk about, but honestly, the core cast here is excellent and worth chatting about.
But at the end of the day, what American Beauty represents about being alive is that it’s easy to follow the rules and do what everybody else is doing; in fact, there’s nothing really wrong with this. However, American Beauty also presents the idea of not just being a joyless, emotionless cog in the machine and instead, embracing life for the small things. The plastic-bag floating in the air may be a bit of a silly metaphor, but it’s one that’s still incredibly effective and iconic as well; while some may choose to follow life by a standard set of guidelines and rules, others choose to float freely and see where life takes them next. Whichever person you are, only you and you alone would know. So soak it all in and never take anything for granted.
And also, jam out to some of the Guess Who while you’re at it.
Consensus: For what it’s worth, American Beauty is a smart, often times, hilarious and insightful look into the lives of people we, initially, despise, but after awhile, learn to love, embrace, and sympathize with, much like life itself.
10 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Movpins
I love that you gave this 10/10. It’s my all time favorite movie. The cast was amazing, I would give them all Oscars if I could.
I find that, of the iconic films which came out in 1999, this film has lost a bit of its luster over the years. I find myself not caring as much for their individual plights as I use to. I can still appreciate a lot of the things Mendes and cast get right, but it has fallen a few pegs for me. Who knows, maybe with some distance I will find that love for it once again.
“Once the white picket fence goes up, consider your life over.” Killer opening.
I disagree completely with Courtney Small; I don’t feel like this movie has lost any of it’s luster at all. It’s aged well, and the messages are still relevant today. This movie really helped me understand and accept how completely abnormal my own family was at the time.
I honestly think this whole cast deserved Oscars. Not a single mediocre performance. Everyone showed up to bring their A game. You don’t get perfect casts like this as much these days…
Great, great film……..certainly showed that “The Usual Suspects” was no fluke for Spacey, and really, did anybody ever think it was? Magnificent cast………if ever an ensemble cast deserved an ensemble award, then this was it! Alison Janney………what an impact………told the story of her life from just sitting there, saying and doing………..nothing! A pity the young girls never went on to do much else…………but they certainly were in the right place at the right time! Even the Dunkin’ Donuts (?) girl was fabulous……….”You are so busted!” (?) Peter Gallagher…….wonderfully sleazy!
And those lead roles……….WOW………you have actors and you have stars……..these guys are both!
Thank you. One of my all-time favorite movies.
There’s a scene in the film where Lester is sitting in his boss’ office and he has this pencil with one of those rubber characters on the top. I’m sure Mendez had in mind to make Lester look as pathetic as possible. It’s one of those moments where you see him and think, “Gosh, he’s got issues.”
But then Lester changes, and that’s the wonder of the film. He becomes this greater-than-life hero where he does everything everyone only imagines possible if only “I didn’t have a mortgage”, “didn’t have the kids to pay through college”, “didn’t have to worry about my other responsibilities.” He chucks it all and says, “It’s never too late to change.”
Man, American Beauty also has so much more going on beyond the surface that it takes multiple viewings to pick up all the underlying messages.
Oh, and isn’t the lighting in the movie incredible? The night scenes are so perfectly balanced, saturated to perfection. The contrast is amazing in the shots.
Anyway, I’m rambling now. Thanks for your review, Dan. Good job!
Great review Dan. This movie is without-a-doubt and instant classic. Kevin Spacey is absolutely terrific in this one. Two thumbs up from Bobby W!