American Beauty (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Over the years, many films have taken a dark look at the supposedly perfect ideal of a white picket fence, a little house, and a nuclear family. For many, the suburban life is the American dream. For others, however, it can turn into a twisted nightmare of unfulfilled desires, repressed needs, and shattered hopes. Because of the necessity to keep up appearances, a serene facade often conceals a breeding ground for dysfunction, anxiety, and hypocrisy. Directors like David Lynch have made this their playground. Lynch in particular delights in depicting the root causes of social decay in suburbia - and he does it by autopsy. American Beauty is not as dark as a Lynch project, since it allows for small moments of redemption, but it mines the same general territory.

If there's a rule in American cinema that all families not named Brady must be dysfunctional, then American Beauty does nothing to violate it. Most teenagers think their parents are strange, but, in the case of Jane Burnham (Thora Birch, whose largest previous big screen role was in Alaska), this is as much a state of reality as it is a state of mind. Her father, Lester (Kevin Spacey), is suffering through a mid-life crisis. At the age of 42, he has become apathetic to everything. "Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser," he confesses at one point, "And they're right. I have lost something. I didn't always feel this sedated." Meanwhile, Jane's mother, Carolyn (Annette Bening), places such value on status that she has turned into a "bloodless, money-grubbing freak" who has no time for any form of intimacy. Her creed: "You cannot count on anyone except yourself." She and Lester continue in their dead marriage for their daughter's sake and so they'll look normal to the outside world. In a moment of clarity, Lester admits, "Our marriage is just for show - a commercial for how normal we are, when we're anything but."

American Beauty is about the ways in which these characters grow, and the catalysts that break them out of their near-catatonic existences. It's also about the emotional paralysis that comes with age and security. We take refuge in routine, and, after a number of years, the thought of change becomes terrifying. Happiness, the goal of youth, is replaced by the desire for the artificial comfort that comes through the numbing sameness of repetition. Loveless marriages like Lester and Carolyn's exist because neither partner possesses the willingness to break the cycle. And the children they think they're protecting by staying together are often the biggest victims of their sham.

Lester's awakening is prompted by two events. The first is the potential of unemployment. At first, Lester faces this possibility with dread - without money, how can he pay the mortgage and send his daughter to college? But then, as he dissects the situation in his mind, he sees how liberating it can be - freed from responsibilities, he no longer needs to be a slave to the establishment. Then there's Jane's best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), an attractive teenager who captures his attention and arouses his sexual interest. Lester's desire to have this girl (a need that borders on obsession) reawakens his long-dead libido.

While Lester is going through a complete reconstruction of his personality and outlook on life, Carolyn's perspective is also changing. Frustrated by her relationship (or lack thereof) with her husband, she begins an affair with a fellow real estate agent who calls himself "The King" (Peter Gallagher). While her sexual liaison with The King doesn't amount to much, it lessens Carolyn's tolerance for what she views as indolence on Lester's part.

Then there's sullen Jane, who's caught between the two of them. Displeased with her physical appearance, she is saving up for breast augmentation surgery (something she clearly does not need). As the film progresses, she develops an unusual relationship with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the boy next door. He views life through a video camera, and, when he first trains his lens on Jane, she is nonplused. After a while, however, she feels flattered, and, following a particularly brutal encounter with her parents, she slowly undresses in front of a window while Ricky watches. Ricky has his own problems - his mother (Allison Janney) is virtually withdrawn from life and his father (Chris Cooper) is an ex-Marine neo-Nazi who submits his son's urine for drug testing every six months. Meanwhile, Jane also has to deal with Angela's growing fascination with the possibility of sleeping with Lester - a consideration that disgusts her.

American Beauty is the first feature film directed by Sam Mendes, who has an extensive background in theater, but displays a sureness that many veteran filmmakers are unable to match. At times evoking elements of Todd Solondz' controversial Happiness and Ang Lee's brilliant The Ice Storm, American Beauty weds compelling drama with black comedy. The movie is character-driven, but the three protagonists are so expertly developed that we are drawn to them for the entire two hour running time. Spacey, Bening, and Birch all give the kinds of top-notch performances that deserve (but do not always get) consideration at Oscar time. Spacey's Lester may be American Beauty's narrator, but, through a low-key portrayal that conveys all the angst and confusion of a particularly bad teenage experience, Birch makes Jane the film's emotional focal point.

If there's a weakness in American Beauty, it's in the way the story is structured. Spacey's voiceover narrative effectively kills a great deal of narrative tension when, during an opening scene, he reveals the film's ending. This approach is often forgivable if there's a compelling dramatic reason for it, but that isn't the case here. In fact, the use of the voiceover allows American Beauty to close with more exposition than is necessary. We don't need to be told, for example, that one of the film's points is that we should learn to savor every moment of life and to see all the hidden beauty the world has to offer.

Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall add some wonderful camera work, especially when it comes to close-ups. In most films, we rarely notice this kind of shot because it is used indiscriminately. However, in American Beauty, it serves the definite purpose of offering insight into a character's mindset. There are many close-ups in this film, and few (if any) are used for the banal purpose of varying shot selection. And Thomas Newman's dynamic, playful score compliments the picture's effective visual composition.

American Beauty doesn't trailblaze a path into hitherto untouched cinematic territory, but its presentation of vivid characters in interesting situations makes the story seem fresh. In part because it's not a complete downer and in part because it doesn't cheat the audience, American Beauty is emotionally satisfying. There's a sense of poignancy at the end, but also the feeling that we have been on an incredible trip through the lives and souls of three perfectly-realized characters. In a year that boasts few truly memorable motion pictures, Mendes can stake a claim alongside the likes of Kubrick and Egoyan as one whose cinematic vision both challenges and entertains.

American Beauty (United States, 1999)

Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1999
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1999-09-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1