American Beauty

Review No. 382


The Bottom Line: One of the best comedy-dramas ever made.

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Alan Ball
Lester Burnham: Kevin Spacey
Carolyn Burnham: Annette Bening
Jane Burnham: Thora Birch
Angela Hayes: Mena Suvari
Also Starring: Allison Janney, Barry Del Sherman, Chris Cooper, Peter Gallagher, Sam Robards, Scott Bakula, Wes Bentley

Distributed by DreamWorks Pictures on September 17, 1999. Produced in English by the United States. Runs 122 minutes. Rated R by the MPAA for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content.

American Beauty was watched on December 31, 2012.

“It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about.” –Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey)

American Beauty is a bleak, somewhat demented drama, ignited by its appropriated black comedy. It’s a spectrum of love and hate—often intertwined—but it’s difficult not to love. A pessimist would love it even more, undoubtedly finding a full connection with the protagonist.

Our story seems a bit twisted, but it’s only the characters who twist themselves, as well as each other. Essentially, this is a kaleidoscopic vision of an ordinary neighborhood, played in a key that gives it a different, deeper meaning. It’s about a “mid-life crisis,” but not an ordinary one. Because ordinary is boring, as is pointed out here multiple times.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is not what you’d imagine of a married man. He’s lonely, bored, depressed. He hates his wife, a happy-go-lucky prima donna. He disregards his daughter. And one day, his life changes altogether when he falls in love with his daughter’s best friend, Angela. What’s worse, he’s infatuated with the very thought of her. He overhears her discussing his muscles, so he decides to work out. He notices she smokes marijuana, so he spends $2,000 on drugs from the next door neighbor. Soon after, he experiences a sudden precognition of his own death…and decides to take advantage of his obsession.

My own spirit was what brought me to American Beauty. The past month of my life (save for the past three or four days) has been devoted to insomnia, pessimism, etc. Having watched it during this state, I found the characters very authentic. But even with a climbing sense of optimism, I still feel as strongly about the characters and story as I did upon initial viewing.

Without a doubt, the film is absurd and just slightly exaggerated. It’s difficult to admit any sort of connection with the entire piece itself, but Lester Burnham seemed, in a great sense, familiar; yet new in the grand scheme of things. He defines the entire spectrum of pessimism very sarcastically, but essentially, he accomplishes what optimism aims for. Halfway through the film, Spacey gives his umpteenth narration. “Remember those posters that said, ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’?” he asks us. “Well, that’s true of every day but one: the day you die.” How truly thought-provoking, yet at the same time, funny. The entire film is a wild hoot, one that constantly makes each scene into another apex.

American Beauty is absolutely beautiful. It’s a multiple-choice test, similar to a Rorschach test, but there is a correct answer:

Is it…

a) the story of a man who thinks he’s going to be shot, so in his last few days on Earth, he decides to replenish his adolescence, rather than reminisce about it?

Or is it…

b) the story of how a man’s obsession detracts from the love and support he had previously devoted to his family and career, and increased his self-esteem by a matter of self-indulgence?

The correct answer is:

“It’s a film that opens up as a), but uses that setup as a mere façade in order to disclose b).”

American Beauty is no less than extraordinary. There is a very small handful of films that are just as unique, and an even smaller handful that draws any similarity with it.

This is a film that shows equal imperfection in all characters. Lester is the protagonist, but only by the laws of storytelling. He narrates the film, appears most prominently, and makes the changes that culminate in a denouement—an unusual one that would play out as a tragedy, were it the conclusion of any other film. There are neither one nor ten antagonists, and just like all the other characters, Lester is essentially an anti-hero. No one acts honorably in American Beauty to achieve their equally lousy targets. Lester is an unfaithful husband, even bringing his lust to a mutual attraction with a girl less than half his age (among other things). Carolyn, his wife, has led to his depression by socializing with everyone she sees, while not saying a word to him (among other things). Jane, their teenage daughter, takes every action by matter of sheer impulse, whether she’s around her boyfriend, her father, or even on videotape (among other things). It doesn’t end until you’ve reached the last character named in the credits.

American Beauty represents the multiplying flaws of humanity in a highly accessible light. It’s everywhere in life, because no one lives in a “bed of roses,” or even a “bathtub of roses.” Except Angela as she appeared in Lester’s mind.



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