American Beauty (1999)
“… look closer”
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
Synopsis: A sexually frustrated suburban father has a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend.
Sam Mendes’ American Beauty taps into that disappointment that afflicts all but the luckiest of souls, the one that can descend upon us with a sudden, terrifying swiftness sometime in our forties (Lester Burnham, the anti-hero of American Beauty, is 42 when he succumbs, but if the movie was written today I suspect he would be closer to fifty — such have times changed in 14 years). Your youth is behind you and old age lies ahead bringing with it the reality of your own mortality, and what have you achieved? American Beauty struck a nerve — with the Academy, at least — back in 1999, but it’s surprising how detached from the real world it now seems, and how one-dimensional and predictable its characters now appear. It’s basic premise, that we tend to look for happiness in all the wrong places, might hold true today as it did back at the end of the last century — and it undoubtedly always will — but I can’t help feeling that American Beauty won acclaim simply because it chose to address the issue in a refreshing way rather than because of any inherent worth in its content. Similarly-themed movies have been made since, and while few of them might have been as well-made as American Beauty, most will have presented a more recognisable world to the majority of the audience.
Kevin Spacey is Lester Burnham, a marketing executive approaching middle-age who appears to have a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. He lives in a nice neighbourhood, has an ambitious still-attractive real-estate wife (Annette Bening), and a teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). But things aren’t right with Lester. His marriage is a loveless sham, and he no longer connects with his surly teen daughter who’s obsessed with having breast augmentation. One night, at the local school basketball game at which Jane is a cheerleader, Lester is struck by the beauty of his daughter’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), a shapely sixteen-year-old blonde. Lester’s ennui is transformed into an infatuation for Angela which prompts him to change his life completely. Already under threat of redundancy, Lester uses an opportunity to argue for his job to make it a certainty that he is dismissed — but not without using blackmail to negotiate a pay-off in excess of a year’s wages.
He meets Ricky (Wes Bentley), the son of former marine Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), who regularly films Jane on a hand-held camcorder. Lester buys pot from Ricky and embarks on a keep-fit regime after hearing Angela mention to Jane that he would be sexy if he got himself in shape. But Lester’s new outlook on life has an unexpected influence on all those around him, and sets in motion a series of incidents that will result in his own death less than a year after experiencing his epiphany.
American Beauty was nominated for eight Oscars at the 2000 Academy Awards, and went on to win five, including a deserved Best Actor gong for Spacey, who is terrific in the lead role. Lester Burnham’s transformation is both physical and psychological, and Spacey keeps tight control of that transformation at all times, unfurling like a butterfly from a stoop-shouldered, pot-bellied loser into a vibrant and confident man who appears to be in control of his own destiny. Of course, by the end of the film we realise that isn’t really the case. Lester’s transformation causes ripples which hit barriers and rebound on him to devastating effect. For some reason, director Mendes and writer Alan Ball attempt to incorporate this into the story as a low-key whodunit sub-plot when it isn’t really necessary, but they at least have the sense to avoid becoming pre-occupied with this strand.
Annette Bening fares less well in her role as his ambitious and emotionally cold wife. It’s a role that borders on hysteria at times, and Bening does little to counteract the script when it strays into some ill-advised comic touches. The entire sub-plot involving her affair with a rival real-estate agent (Peter Gallagher), in particular, fails to ring true and threatens to descend into farce. That might have been Ball’s intention, but it’s by far the weakest part of the movie, and one which ultimately goes nowhere. Burnham didn’t need evidence of her infidelity to know their marriage was as dead as the woman she used to be.
The older it becomes the more American Beauty begins to look like a relic from another age — a worrying notion given that it’s only fourteen years old at the time of writing. There are plenty of good things about the movie, but it all comes across as a little too pat.
(Reviewed 20th June 2013)