Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Alen Ball
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher, Mena Suvari
Time can be the true arbiter of quality when it comes to filmmaking and not many films have gone through the pendulum of public opinion quite like American Beauty. Whether it be from the revelations about the lead actor to the realization that maybe everything it posits lacks real substance, this will forever remain a puzzling film. Even with its ebbs and flows, it still demonstrates the dire reality of suburbia and the uncomfortable nature of sex in this country.
Living a married life with a daughter that hates him, Lester (Kevin Spacey) wants more from life. He has everything he needs that should make him happy, or at least what he has been made to believe. With that, he begins to have a growing affection for one of his daughter’s friends, who represents everything he desires and everything he does not have. With his own issues, his wife and daughter go through each of their own struggles as well with the feeling of being connected to others.
Looking back at the reaction of this film back in 1999 and now would have you think that people are speaking on different films and the discussion that follows American Beauty brings forth healthy discussion. There are certainly moments where the film believes itself to be much deeper than it actually proves to be, but it all plays into the sham of living in suburbia and how even the most transparent folks must hide something from others.
Lester feels completely miserable in life even if he has the American Dream of a nice house with a successful wife and daughter. He should be satisfied but certainly does not feel that way because he has this insatiable desire to acquire more in life. His wife no longer interests him and once he loses his job, he takes the opportunity to dive deep into a mid-life crisis, which demonstrates that he never believed in the nonsense he peddled to get to his life. He did what he needed to do to reach a status he felt like he needed to achieve and once he realized that happiness would never come from it, he reveals his true self. That just happens to be a self-centered, perverted, and truly troubled man that needs justification for everything he does. Seeing Lester as this informs his true character.
Conversely, the film also follows Lester’s wife, Carolyn, brilliantly portrayed by Annette Benning. She faces her own issues of professional accomplishment while also realizing everything in her life being nothing she imagined it would be. That leads to her decisions and why the conclusion truly breaks her. Even with her life forever being changed, the sham of living this American Dream became a safe bubble for her that forever bursted because of the actions her family committed.
This would not be the only time that director Sam Mendes would venture into the hellhole world that suburbia brings to a marriage and other relationships. He does a better job, in my opinion, in Revolutionary Road but he manages to strike a particularly strong nerve in American Beauty. His filmmaking shows the allure of breaking free from the life we all assume would bring us any sort of true happiness. All of the imaginative scenes Lester has of the girl he wants, Angela, demonstrate artful direction along with the flurry of roses that feature throughout the entire story.
Through it all, American Beauty still holds up with its themes. It may have been given too much praise when it first landed on the scene, but as a film, it still succeeds in telling its story. It proves that everyone in this society lies about who they are and the feelings they have for one another. It all comes down to status and it ends with each character having a fitting conclusion to the lives they have led and what their fate should be. Seeing it when younger made us think that we were intellectually advanced and even into adulthood, when some of the substance feels weaker, it still provides some much needed discussion as well as seeing the lead actor show part of his true self on screen. Mendes demonstrates his ability to capture drama that he would end up showing in much more style and precision in later films, but it still indicates that he knows how to tell a strong story.