American Beauty (1999)
The anomie of suburban life has been done to death in
American cinema, but American Beauty is a bitterly funny and beautifully crafted
film, even if it does cover a lot of familiar ground. Its a movie that keeps
replaying itself in your mind long after youve left the theater, thanks largely to
Kevin Spaceys lustrous performance as Lester Burnham, a cracked eggshell of a man
who manages to rediscover his lost vitality.
The members of the
Burnham family Lester, his success-obsessed wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and
their teenaged daughter Jane (Thora Birch) are living in an air-conditioned prison.
They have all the ticky-tacky of an upwardly mobile middle-class family, but theyve
lost themselves in the clutter. Lester in particular is on the verge of disappearing
altogether. Hes a disappointment to Carolyn and an embarrassment to Jane, but he
hasnt let anyone down more than himself. He begins his days by jerking off in the
shower, and he spends the rest of his time in a fog, wondering where it all went wrong.
Hes a receding schlump of a man at dinner he sits with his chair pulled back
so far from the table that he can barely reach his plate and now that hes
about to be downsized out of his job, hell never be able to provide the fantasy life
that Carolyn craves.
Everything begins to
change one night when Jane introduces her friend Angela (Mena Suvari) to her parents.
Lester is smitten to the core of his soul with this little blonde truffle; he can barely
keep the saliva in his mouth when hes around her. His passion for her injects new
vigor into his fantasies, and in turn gives a jump-start to his entire life. He quits his
job (in a howlingly funny scene) and, in true Baby Boomer fashion, he begins working out
and smoking pot. Mostly he amuses himself by saying whats been on his mind all these
years, like a man coming out of a coma, because hes had it up to here with
appearances and all the crap thats been oppressing him. ("The new me whacks off
whenever I feel horny," he notifies a horrified Carolyn when she catches him
masturbating in bed next to her.) His family drifting ever farther away, Lester finds that
the person with whom he feels most comfortable is Ricky Fitts, the teenaged pot dealer who
lives next door and whos obsessed with videotaping everything especially
Jane. (As Ricky, Wes Bentley gives the other first-rate performance in American Beauty.
His eerie self-possession and clear-sighted gaze make it plain why Lester would look at
Ricky as a role model.)
American Beauty gives us
a full dose of the luminosity and wry expressiveness that Spacey displayed in L.A. Confidential. (The way that the camera takes to
Spaceys face must make other actors want to eat their livers out.) Lesters
transformation in the middle section of American Beauty is rich and immensely
satisfying; it offers balm to all those parts of us that feel hammered or aggrieved.
Lester keeps growing, deepening, throughout the movie, long past the wonderful sequences
where hes pumping iron in his garage as Dylan blares away on a tape-deck. Eventually
he even outgrows his infatuation for Angela, for hes more than just an aging fart
enjoying a last hurrah. By the movies end, hes the only potent and mature
person on the scene, the only one capable of selflessness and insight. And that, of
course, makes everyone else want to kill him. For if American Beauty is partly
about the crushing effect that adulthood and a smiley-face culture can have on our
spirits, its also about how sparingly we dole out freedom to our loved ones, and how
threatening it is when they begin changing the rules.
Sam Mendes has never
made a feature film (hes a renowned stage director), but he fills American Beauty
with surprising and occasionally breathtaking images. One of these the swirling
dance of a plastic bag thats caught up in a dust devil is precisely the type
of meditative and unforced beauty that mainstream movies refuse to give us these days. American
Beautys material would crumble if it were pushed too hard, so Mendes uses a sly,
off-centered way to make us register critical details, such as the wall full of videotapes
in Rickys bedroom, or the white picket fence that seems to crosshatch the
Burnhams front lawn.
The movies one
truly regrettable lapse is the character of Rickys father, a retired Marine colonel
whose moral rigidity has turned him into a closet psycho. Colonel Fitts adds another layer
to the Sixties subtext that courses through American Beauty, but characters like
his had worn out their welcome even before Bruce Derns military man in Coming
Home. Fitts is by no means that badly drawn, and in the role Chris Cooper shows a dark
and steely side of himself thats invisible in the films he does for John Sayles. But
does Fitts really need to collect guns and Nazi chinaware? Does his repressed
homosexuality really have to be the key to his coming unglued at the end? Characters like
Colonel Fitts should be confined to bestiaries like Happiness,
where the characters are kept in cages that are carefully labeled "Laughable,"
"Deluded," "Repellent," "Grotesque."
Beautys satire is usually lighter and more fluid than that, more in the vein of
Michael Ritchies Smile or the early portions of Kubricks Lolita.
Most of all, American Beauty doesnt paint suburban life as necessarily
shallow or draining. The Burnhams world affords glimpses of potential and happiness,
and the movie is about Lesters coming to appreciate that a special kind of American
beauty has always existed in his own life. By the pictures end, he can look at that
small plastic bag twisting wildly in the wind without flinching.