Screenplay : Alan Ball
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Kevin Spacey (Lester Burnham), Annette Bening (Carolyn Burnham), Thora Birch (Jane Burnham), Wes Bentley (Ricky Fitts), Mena Suvari (Angela Hayes), Peter Gallagher (Buddy Kane), Chris Cooper (Colonel Fitts), Allison Janney (Barbara Fitts)
"American Beauty," the directorial debut of Sam Mendes, the Broadway director who recently staged Nicole Kidman in "The Blue Room," is a completely assured debut, a visually extravagant, entrancingly dark comedy about how people fall apart and build walls of angst between each other. It takes place in a nameless suburb of a major American city, its interchangeability a symbolic means of asserting the universality of the story, despite its exaggerated characters and bizarre situations.
Mendes, working from a script by first-time screenwriter Alan Ball, alternates the tone of the movie with the confident hand of an old pro; he switches from laugh-out comedy to pained pathos to sizzling eroticism to sudden and graphic violence. The movie's power lies in its ability to draw the viewer into its slightly deranged world and never let go; in this way it is much like the best films of David Lynch, who has made his career in creating recognizable worlds that exist in a slightly off-kilter parallel reality. Such is the world of "American Beauty."
In one of the best performances of his career, Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a self-proclaimed "loser" whose high-point of the day is masturbating in the shower. Lester is a "family man," trapped in both work and marriage. He works a dead-end job at a marketing magazine, and his marriage to his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), hasn't been right for years. Through flashbacks and photographs, Mendes shows that Lester and Carolyn were once happy, but their marriage has sunk into an unenjoyable convenience. Lester is so miserable with himself that he has almost shut himself out of the world, and Carolyn has developed herself into a social-climbing real estate agent who wears her fake plastic smile and chipper laugh like a badge of honor.
This brief description makes the story sound depressing, but it's not. In fact, "American Beauty" is often extremely funny, although much of it is gallows humor. The story takes off when Lester decides to reassert himself in life--he quits his job and blackmails his boss for a year's salary and benefits, takes a job flipping burgers, begins working out with weights, and smoking marijuana. It's the mid-life crisis taken to the extreme, pronounced all the more by Carolyn's shocked disgust at her husband's manic behavior.
Meanwhile, Lester and Carolyn's sullen teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is going through crises all her own. Not only is she dealing with lunatic parents, but her best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), is a self-absorbed aspiring model who gets off on the fact that Lester openly lusts after her. Jane also becomes involved with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), her new neighbor who has the strange habit of videotaping everything he sees. At first, it's creepy seeing him with his intense stare, quietly filming the suburban world from his front porch. But later, in a monologue that explains a great deal about himself and the world, Ricky shows that he is simply looking for beauty with his camera gaze.
If there is a great ironic statement that stands out in "American Beauty" (and there are many), it is what the movie says about the nature of beauty itself. Not only does Ricky find himself more attracted to the more homely Jane over the overtly sexual Angela (thus suggesting the age-old argument of inner beauty versus physical beauty), but the movie also indulges in a protracted exploration of where beauty can be found in today's over-built, concrete world of generic housing and strip malls. The answer is simple enough: beauty is where each individual finds it, reflected in Ricky's favorite home video of a plastic bag floating in the wind. There is nothing particularly beautiful in aesthetic terms about the plastic bag, but it means something to Ricky, therefore it has beauty.
So, to follow that line of thought, perhaps we are meant to find some kind of odd beauty in Lester's bizarre mid-life crisis. There is beauty in his ability to find his voice, even if that voice is not particularly rational. Still, when contrasted to Carolyn's obsessive-compulsive materialism that has no real meaning, we can see why the movie is on Lester's side and therefore has to force Annette Bening into such a caricatured performance. Carolyn never finds her voice except in a pathetic affair with the absurd local real estate "king" (Peter Gallagher).
However, even lower than Carolyn is Ricky's Dad, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) the movie's one true enemy and its one weak spot. Colonel Fitts is a cruel, homophobic fascist who beats Ricky and runs his house with such an iron grip that his wife (Allison Janney) seems to have slipped into a permanent medicated state of passive denial. Colonel Fitts is painted as such an extreme character (his fascism being even more extreme than Lester's indulgence), that is impossible to deny that at some point he will crack. Thus, although Mendes does an excellent job of building an almost impossibly long sequence of sustained tension during the rain-soaked final 20 minutes of the film, the ending seems somewhat pat; it's a let-down only because it seems easy in retrospect.
Barring that small complaint, "American Beauty" is quite extraordinary, especially for a directorial debut. Mendes' endeavor is aided greatly by Thomas Newman's music and the beautiful cinematography by Conrad L. Hall ("A Civil Action"). Mendes' deft handling of the camera shows he has a true visual gift. The showier parts of the movie involve a number of dream sequences about Lester's unbridled lust for Angela, but Mendes truly shines in the smaller moments that are not so obvious.
Mendes maintains a constant sense of voyeurism by viewing large portions of the movie through Ricky's video lens, which makes a stark commentary about the audience's own voyeuristic position as we watch from the safety of the movie theater these crumbling people and ticking time bombs. "American Beauty" is the kind of movie that has a great deal going on along the surface, but even more surging just below, and it is here that the film takes you into its utterly palpable world and never lets go.
Copyright © 1999 James Kendrick