The winner of five Oscars including Best Picture, American Beauty is a film that covers a lot of the problems of Middle America in just two hours. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is an average man in an average town, working an average job. Lester is married to the pushy, cold and career driven Carolyn (Annette Bening) and is in the midst of a mid life crisis which is heightened with an infatuation for his daughter Jane’s (Thora Birch) friend Angela (Mena Suvari).
I thought I’d seen the film years ago and remembered the stand out scenes but had forgotten an awful lot of the plot so ended up unsure if I had actually seen it. American Beauty is a fascinating film which cuts to the heart of the suburban American psyche, bringing up some uncomfortable ideas about sexuality, infidelity, violence, mental illness and incest. Despite a compelling story, some very good performances and fine direction I wasn’t always able to get totally on board with it.
I was always happiest when Kevin Spacey was on the screen. He is the driving force behind the film and the plot flows through him and into the other characters. I sometimes found that when the plot turned its attention towards Jane and Ricky (Wes Bentley) that I lost interest a little. Their story of fitting in as teenagers and discovering themselves was of less interest to me than Lester’s journey of enlightenment and freedom. There is a vital scene in which he appears to break free of repression and decide that enough is enough. I really enjoyed the more relaxed and care free side of Lester and a scene in which he ‘accidentally’ drives a remote controlled car into his wife was a particular highlight. The look of satisfaction and cheekiness on his face is priceless. At times it feels as though Lester is regressing to a time before mortgages and responsibility as a way of freeing himself from his unhappiness and I found this good fun to watch.
There are a lot of themes which are touched upon and are probably many different ways to interpret the movie. For me it is about breaking free and being who you want to be but it is also about repressed sexuality and sexual freedom. It seems that almost every character has some sort of sexual problem whether it be acceptance, body image, frustration or insecurity. I think the way in which these ideas were portrayed was very good and there were a few surprises along the way. The way in which one relationship starts of with an infatuation and ends up as a sort of surrogate father/daughter relationship also marks a satisfying curve. Another theme and indeed interpretation of the film could be the mundane existence of middle class, Middle America. Most of the characters are dissatisfied with their slice of the American dream and urge for something more, more exciting, more fulfilling or just more. I though it was nice that it turned out to be those who you least expect of it to actually reach out for it. All of these theories could be nonsense though. When I asked my girlfriend what she thought it was about she replied “it’s about boobies”.
American Beauty features some pretty special acting performances. Kevin Spacey won an Oscar for his portrayal of the depressed Lester Burnham and deserves it. He appears to be having great fun with the role despite at times acting in a submissive manner to Mena Surari and Annette Bening. Bening is also very good and is able to switch between ice cold and deeply warm at the flick of a switch. Her distance from her family though is what makes her performance what it is. Mena Suvari plays the arrogant, overly sexed ‘prick tease’ with great aplomb. Her character knows exactly what kind of impact she has on men and it is unlike anything I’ve seen from the actress before or since. Wes Bentley is also pretty convincing as the awkward, slightly off kilter kid from next door but I didn’t find his character engaging and didn’t get the plastic bag scene. Allison Janney gives a very subtle and understated performance and quietly stole many of her scenes while Chris Cooper’s firecracker former Marine was good too. His role in the film and issues become obvious a little too early for my liking though. Thora Birch rounds out a great cast with a decent performance but through no fault of her own I wasn’t able to connect with her character or story.
Overall I’d say that American Beauty is a very good but not great film. There is a lot that I like about it and can certainly appreciate its appeal but I wasn’t engrossed in the entire story and lost interest when Spacey was off screen. I also didn’t quite understand some of the characters and metaphors but that probably has more to do with me than the film. 1999 was a year that featured the likes of The Green Mile, Fight Club, The Matrix, Magnolia, The Sixth Sense and Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy. I don’t think that American Beauty was the best film of 1999 but can understand why it won an Oscar. It is a well written, acted and directed film but for me stops short of anything more.