American Beauty (1999)
Release Date: October 1st, 1999 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sam Mendes Actors: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Chris Cooper, Scott Bakula, Sam Robards
year-old Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) narrates the story of his ordinary and uneventful yet increasingly more aggravating and unlivable life, omnisciently revealing in the first two minutes of the film that he’ll be dead in less than a year. He’s a self-proclaimed gigantic loser, working in a tiny cubicle for Media Monthly Magazine, which has recently employed efficiency expert Brad Dupree (Barry Del Sherman) as a soulless hatchet-man to cut costs. Les is married to perfectionist realtor Carolyn (Annette Bening), herself struggling with self-esteem and career failures, while his daughter Jane (Thora Birch), an only child, is expectedly angry, insecure, confused, and currently contemplating having her boyfriend murder her father.
When Les and Carolyn attend Jane’s cheerleading routine at school, Les becomes infatuated with teenage performer Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), who enjoys receiving attention from every guy who eyes her. Jane gains her own peculiar voyeur in new neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley), an 18 year-old boy obsessed with filming things with his video camera, and who was rumored to have been institutionalized. Ricky’s father, the narrow-minded, specifically homophobic, U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), is the driving force behind the youth’s seemingly troubled oddness and intricately-built network of protective deceptions, running the household with a militaristic austerity that also clearly traumatizes his frail wife Barbara (Allison Janney). When Les meets Ricky (who supplies him with marijuana), the longtime downtrodden man surprises himself with the realization that he’s still in control of a few choices – including how he interacts with his wife and his job.
“American Beauty” is a severe yet routinely humorous exploration of the uncovering of secretive dysfunction in falsely idealistic American suburbia life, as well as a skewed look at beauty through the viewpoints of disparate interpreters. This theme is something of a modernized update of the grotesqueries and hidden layers found in “Blue Velvet.” It is frequented by frank dialogue and sharp commentary on fate, facades (projecting an image of success), role models, temptation, rejection, hatred, responsibility, blame and abuse, discipline and structure, and the complicatedness of human sexuality, while visualizing episodes of knotty relationships, reconnecting with family, unforeseen confrontations, and revisitations of the important elements of life. The crux of the picture resides in contrary exterior perceptions, misunderstandings, and imperceptible inner truths, again demonstrated with wit and artistic poignancy, even if a few meanings remain uncomfortably elusive or open to debate.
“Never underestimate the power of denial,” observes Ricky, through whose eyes the audience sees a unique antihero under the influence of mesmerizing control and tranquility (another carefully crafted front), along with rare exquisiteness in uncommonly interesting imagery. Lester represents the mustering of newfound confidence, the recognition of freedoms won by clever manipulation, and the stirring ability to regain command of his future. Yet, ironically, the expectedly confounded teens are just as lost as the adults in their understanding of life and purpose. It’s a love story, a tale of redemption, a drama of unraveling lifestyles and psychological corrosion, and a poetic tragedy, all wrapped up together to symbolize – and perhaps condemn – the universal attempt at normalcy that masks how mankind is anything but classifiable in any given typicality.
– Mike Massie