Monday, March 7, 2011

Review: American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

American Beauty, the Academy Award winning collaboration between Sam Mendes (director of Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road) and Alan Ball (writer, creator of Six Feet Under and True Blood), was one of the most intelligent, provocative and respected dramas of 1999. Winner of awards for Best Picture, Director (Mendes), Screenplay (Ball), Actor (Kevin Spacey) and Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), American Beauty is a definitive cinematic achievement and considered one of the greatest films ever made about the hollow existence of American suburban life. To complement the beautiful cinematography and fine performances, Alan Ball's script is the perfect balance of hilarious comedy, and tragic drama and misunderstanding. Seamlessly weaving together the love stories of its brilliant ensemble, this is a definitive classic not to be missed.

At the heart of American Beauty is Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a middle-aged writer for a magazine who is deep in a funk. He loathes his job, he is tired of his alienating suburban existence, and his withdrawal from living the life he used to lead. As revealed in his opening voice-over monologue, Lester narrates the story from an afterlife, and the film reveals the events via flashback. Of course, we know that he will ultimately be killed at the conclusion, it's the bizarre series of events that occur throughout the final year of his life that makes this film so memorable. The films tracks his life-changing decisions that bring both the self-happiness he had long forgotten, but it also impacts the lives of those around him. Lester lives in a beautiful home in the middle of Californian suburbia. Surrounded by a neighborhood of houses that all look the same, and with his own home adorned with expensive commodities, Lester has lost his grasp on life and feels 'sedated'. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is an ambitious real-estate broker who assumes complete control of the marriage, while their sixteen-year old daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), repulsed by her parents 'fake' marriage and lack of interest in her, has self-esteem issues. Beginning with a high aerial zoom shot into the Burnham's neighborhood and street, the opening sequence is accompanied by Lester's amusing narration.

"My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. my life. I'm 42 years old and in less than a year I'll be dead. Of course I don't know that yet, but in a way, I'm dead already."

We see his blatant indifference to daily existence, as he clumsily climbs out of bed, showers and naps in the back seat of the car while his wife drives him to work. By revealing that he will soon be dead it challenges the audience to question their own mortality and to 'look closer' and be aware of the beauty present in the world around them. The film satirizes the American middle-class and their notions of the meaning, satisfaction and beauty that drive their lives. Living on either side of the Burnham's are a gay couple both named Jim, and the recently moved in Fitts family, domineered by retired United States Marine Corps Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper). His son Ricky (Wes Bentley), a marijuana smoking drug dealer, attends the same school as Jane, and befriends Lester when they meet one night at the bar where Ricky also works. Ricky has a habit of filming his surroundings with his hand-held video camera, and he stores hours of footage on tapes in his room. The infamous 'dancing bag' shot is revealed later in the film, from his wealth of footage.

Lester begins an infatuation with Jane's cheerleader girlfriend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), and has a number of erotic dreams and hallucinations involving her. When Lester overhears Angela telling Jane that she would be attracted to him if he bulked his physique, he sets up a weight machine in his garage, and begins taking daily jogs with the Jims. With his new boss preparing a redundancy package for him at work, he decides to blackmail him into a $60,000 settlement and resigns, finding limited responsibility employment at a fast food chain. He buys his dream car and starts smoking Ricky's marijuana.
All of a sudden Lester finds himself living again. At the same time, however, the rest of Lester's family are taking their own twisted journey through their lives. Not content with her marriage to Lester, Carolyn discusses a divorce and begins an adulterous affair with rival real estate mogul, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). Jane is intrigued by Ricky's infatuation with filming her, and finds that he can see into her even more than she can, and recognizes her true beauty. But Ricky receives strict discipline at home after his homophobic father finds his captured footage of Lester exercising naked, and assumes his only son is gay. The lives of all the characters weave together seamlessly, and slowly unravel through several tragic misunderstandings. It's a tribute to Alan Ball's script in that it maintains such an engaging atmosphere throughout, while also successfully examining the quite complex themes of personal imprisonment and redemption, social conformity and sexual repression, without becoming too pretentious, a trait commonly tagged to the film.

Thomas Newman's score, a now recognizable part of popular culture, is a mix of gorgeous percussion-dominated instrumentals that work to delicately balance the stunning cinematography with the script's moral ambiguity. The soundtrack also includes an eclectic mix of pop songs, including tracks from The Who, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Hendrix. Sam Mendes is yet to make a bad film, but none of his recent work has ever recaptured the magic of his debut feature. Alan Ball, the creator of one of televisions pinnacle achievements in Six Feet Under, endows the narrative with witty, character driven drama, which takes the audience on a complex journey through American suburbia, tracking a series of love stories that reveal everything wrong with American life. The ensemble is uniformly perfect. Kevin Spacey is outstanding, and gives the best performance of his career. While the performances of Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Chris Cooper and Peter Gallagher are also excellent. 

American Beauty is one of my personal favorite films, and while there is so much more to say about the layers of narrative, and what the central meaning of the film is, I find it better just to just enjoy the characters. I don't think I have laughed more than at the scenes involving Lester's cynical rants to his boss and his wife. It is one of the most lusciously photographed films I have ever seen and one of the most consistently entertaining comedy-dramas in my collection. Most people who love cinema will have already seen it, and i have found it tends to divide opinions, but I urge anyone yet to be exposed to it's beauty, for lack of a better word, you should make the effort.

My Rating: 5 Stars


  1. Excellent review. I've always been indifferent to the film but there's some brilliant performances on show, that's for sure.

  2. Great review,
    I've been meaning to see this one for a while as it receives so much praise, I've never got around to it though as I'm really not very interested in it... but I will someday!

  3. @Dan: Thank you! I know a lot of people who feel the same way. I find it hysterical at times, and frequently watchable. I love Ball's script, and the exceptional performances.

    @Jack L: It's a must-see. One of the late 90's classics IMO.