American Beauty does everything a brilliantly complex film should do
American Beauty, having won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Cinematography at the 1999 Academy Awards, is one of the most spectacular films I have ever seen, employing a psychologically taut ensemble of deeply complex characters in a suburban setting where such deep underlying issues are rarely explored or shared with the rest of country and city dwellers.
Screenwriter Alan Ball’s keen interest in the psycho-sexual (and all those little hidden ghosts we lock deep down inside) lends itself to the creation of characters with driving forces so realistic I thought I was watching a gorgeous imitation of life.
Ball’s theme ‘Look Closer,’ which can be seen by the attentive viewer on a piece of paper strategically hanging in the cubicle of our protagonist, is groundbreaking, forcing us to peer deeper into the seemingly perfect lives of an all-American suburban family. Upon looking more closely, we find that behind the flawless rose garden, the immaculate house, the great jobs and the family dinners around the table, we have a cast of extremely unhappy and utterly unfulfilled characters.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is going through a mid-life crisis. He is "a whore to the advertising industry," he hasn’t had sex in far too long, and he feels like he has "lost something." But, as the film explores, it is never too late to get it back.
After quitting his high paying career for a new job at a fast food restaurant, picking up marijuana for the first time in many years, Lester finally begins to feel good about his life once again. However, his wife and daughter are not so thrilled when Lester begins fantasizing about his daughter’s 16-year-old best friend.
Lester’s wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) is a frigid, career-obsessed basket case who hides behind a pseudo-professional and painfully phony demeanor. Their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is the average high school girl: insecure, self-conscious and miserable. That is, until she meets the new next door neighbor Ricky Fitz (Wes Bentley), a pot dealer who seems almost too confident to be real.
Ricky becomes the conscious character, as he seems to be the only one with insight into just how dysfunctional everyone is around him. Also among this group of dysfunctionals are Jane’s so-called best friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) and Ricky’s parents, Colonel Frank Fitz U.S. Marine Core (Chris Cooper) and Barbara (Allison Janey).
Barbara lives in her own catatonic world, rarely speaks and seems as detached from the rest of the world as a distant star. Never before have I seen a character quite like her on the big screen; the epitome of what can happen as a result of entirely giving up on life.
But Colonel Frank Fitz takes the cake. An openly homophobic cynic, maniacally suspicious about a nonexistent sexual relationship between his son Ricky and Lester, he does the unimaginable toward the end of the film.
Narrated throughout by Lester Burnham, the brilliant conclusion of this ferociously realistic gem of a film left me in absolute awe well after the fade to black.
Masterfully directed by Sam Mendes, American Beauty is one of those rare films that must be seen by all, perhaps again and again, to fully understand the complexity of the characters, as well as to be reinforced that life, in all its imperfection, is truly worth living to the fullest while we all still have the chance.