American Beauty is a beautiful movie with a creepy premise. This put a lot of people off of the movie, but I think Mendes did a really good job handling it. Ultimately, it ended up being pretty uplifting, even taking into account all of the depressing stuff that happens along the way.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a 42 year old man going through a mid life crisis. He hates his job as a telemarketer, he hates his home life where his wife and daughter don’t seem to give him a second thought, and he feels like he has no identity of his own. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is so focused on “projecting an image of success” that she never stops to think about how unhappy she and the rest of her family is. Their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), is a moody teenager who doesn’t seem to fit in at school or at home. Closed off from the rest of the world with a white picket fence in safe nameless suburbia, the Burnham’s are all about to drastically change their lives.
It all begins when (and this is the creepy part) Lester meets Jane’s best friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), and is immediately attracted to her. Despite the fact that he is forty two and she is about sixteen, he decides to reform his life in order to win her. She picks up on Lester’s feelings, and encourages them, to the embarrassment of Jane. Even though this is creepy beyond belief, the film still manages to make it positive. Lester has fantasies about Angela, but on the whole does pretty well with consent. He works out, quits his job (in a fantastic scene), buys a new car, smokes pot, and works at a local fast food restaurant. While this may not sound like most people’s ideal life, Lester is doing the best he can and it’s important to him.
The goes for the rest of the Burnham’s as well. Carolyn continues her drive for ultimate real estate success by having an affair with another broker that she admires, who teaches her how to shoot a gun. For the most part, she is a lot less uptight. Unfortunately, she doesn’t try to completely change her life as Lester does, so she doesn’t find as much fulfillment. Jane is finally able to step out of the shadow of the more sexually experienced Angela by falling in love with the boy next door (Wes Bentley). He ends up figuring in largely to the Burnham’s life as well. Angela also finds redemption in an very unexpected way.
It is great to see all of the characters try to turn their lives around, even if they do it in a strange way or aren’t completely successful. Almost every character grows in some way over the course of the film, and it’s extremely satisfying by the time the end of the movie rolls around. The only criticism I would really offer is that sometimes the actors go into profound monologues that don’t necessarily come off as brilliantly as they should. However, Spacey does really well with the voice over narration; it’s one of the highlights of the film. The insights he imparts aren’t as lengthy as the various monologues, so it works a lot better.
American Beauty is a deserving Oscar winner in my opinion. It won five out of its eight nominations, winning picture, actor for Spacey, director for Mendes, original screenplay, and cinematography. The cinematography is the only thing here that really didn’t stand out for me, though they did do some interesting found footage type stuff with the kid next door filming things. Bening lost out on actress, and the film also failed to win for editing and score. Regardless of all this Oscar jazz, the film is very good. It takes something that probably should be creepy and makes it strangely inspiring, and is very entertaining in doing so.
“It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself.”
Long story short: 3.5/4