This movie really divided folks back when it was released in 1999. I remember recommending it to renters in the video store. Some of them coming back loving it and others hating it. At the time, I figured the movie hit a little too close to home, and some viewers were just angry with it. But some time has passed, and maybe I just need to look closer…
Lester Bernham (Kevin Spacey) says the following in the beginning of the film, “My wife and daughter think I’m a loser. And they’re right, I have lost something”. It doesn’t take too long for Lester to be shocked into action. His daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) becomes a vision of Aphrodite for him, and he starts to fanaticize about the teenager. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) can’t seem to catch a break in her real estate business and becomes more frayed by the day. Jane Bernham (Thora Birch) thinks both of her parents are “lameos”. Luckily she meets the boy next store.
The new neighbors are the Fitts. Ricky (Wes Bentley) is a young loner who spends his time selling weed and filming beauty on his camcorder. His father Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is as straight-laced and hard assed as they come. His wife Barbara (Allison Janney) is suffering from some kind of mental fugue, as she wanders the house in a daze.
Both families will warp and change over the next few days, as they come to realize that there is beauty in the world. Sometimes it is on the surface hiding something dark underneath. Other times American Beauty is right in front of you, you’ll only see it if you look closer.
- Some amazing visuals that tell the story and themes at various levels
- Excellent cast and acting
- An innovative score by Thomas Newman
- Can be seen as pretentious and artsy
- Doesn’t tell a new story or reveal a “hidden truth”
- The slower pace will bore some viewers
I can still see why this will divide some viewers. The message about mid-life crises and futility of suburban life is enough to make some people sick. I still think some folks will see too much of themselves in these characters and take offense. While my enthusiasm for the film has cooled a bit, I still think that the visual style on display and the top-notch acting by a pitch perfect cast makes this well worth seeking out, or revisiting.
Scores (out of 5)
In Depth Review
|Quoth Lester, "I RULE!"|
But the thing is, these angry folks need to take the films advice, and look closer at American Beauty and realize that there is some amazing cinematic skill on display. Even if you don’t like or agree with the message, doesn’t mean you can dismiss the whole film out of hand.
Director Sam Mendes has been very selective with the films he directs. American Beauty was his first film, and he followed it up with The Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, Away we Go and the James Bond flick Skyfall. One common thread in each of these films is the amazing visuals on display. Everything from the lighting, the framing and the camera movement is designed to accentuate the story, enforce the themes and create a mood. You can take any scene in this film and it will tell you several things at once. You don’t see this type of visual attention too often, and it’s always a pleasure when you do.
|What she sees is not who we see.|
The infamous scene in American Beauty where Ricky and Jane watch a movie of a bag blowing in the wind delivers the main theme of the film. Ricky calls it the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. He speaks about how beauty is all around us and when you realize it, the feeling overwhelms you. Bentley delivers the lines with such conviction that you believe him. At the same time, many viewers find this whole scene to be so pretentious and ridiculous that they want to throw something at the screen and wring Ricky’s neck.
|True beauty, or true pretension?|
I kind of get it. But at the same time I see where Ricky is coming from. His dialogue in that scene made sense to me, and I could connect with him. Seeing things in another way can be alienating. It’s difficult because everyone is telling you, you’re wrong. It’s takes courage to say, “What if we looked at it this way?” So many people only see things the way they want to. American Beauty shares this idea with David Lynch’s Lost Highway a couple years before. Lost Highway is about a man who remembers things his way, “Not necessarily the way they happened”. I think a lot of people are like that, and don’t want to see things another way. It’s difficult to handle life as you see it, to imagine life from someone else’s view is too much.
|Red on white - colors that repeat during the film|
Beyond the visuals, the acting is the other key component here. Spacey as Lester and Bening as Carolyn are perfect. Spacey is great at acerbic and disillusioned, and he makes the transformation of Lester a very real one. Bening also balances an intensity and desperation that is believable and pitiful. I always start the film disliking her, but in the end I feel sorry for her, and hope that she’s able to hold onto that moment of freedom that she obtains.
|Jane and Ricky watch death drive by|
Last but not least is Chris Cooper as Col. Frank Fitts. It seems like a very superficial character. But we see a lot of levels going on here. The final scenes with him confronting Lester are handled so well. The look in Cooper’s eyes is perfect and does so much for that scene. Re-watching the movie, knowing what is coming, you can see how much Cooper put into the performance. This man has some serious issues, and they are all layered within.
The music by Thomas Newman is a curious beast. I blogged a bit about it here. It fits the movie like a glove, being both bright and atmospheric when it needs to be. Newman uses some unique instrumentation that on the surface shouldn’t work. But it all does. Combined with some perfect song selections, the musical soundscape of the film works wonders.
|What Col. Fitts sees is not what we know.|
No the message is not new. Even the images aren’t new. But what is new is the concept of watching and looking. 1999 saw the advent of another film that focused on watching and seeing. The truth was sought and the perspective was from a hand held camera. The Blair Witch Project used its footage to show the truth of what happened to those who sought the truth. American Beauty does something very similar. Ricky’s camera captures the true beauty, even if it may not be immediately apparent. It’s interesting to see how the use of the handheld camera as an image of perspective would really become popular in the 2000s, after both these films got the concept rolling.
I don’t like the word pretentious. It is thrown around without much thought. I always get the feeling that if someone doesn’t’ like the message of something they use that word to put down the creator. Pretention implies that the creator is out to make a grand statement that he or she feels you need to know for your own good. The only way to do this is to talk down to you. But like everything else, pretention is in the eye of the beholder.
|Lester gazed upon an American Beauty|
But that assumes that they aren’t just telling a story about two families during a time of change. For me the message is: you can’t be happy until you are at peace with yourself and your life. Ricky is the only character who is happy with his life (for the most part). Each character gets a taste of that peace (except for Col Fitts and his wife). It takes a moment of contemplation, to see yourself from another point of view and understand that maybe, just maybe, what is the social norm is not the key to happiness for everyone.
|This scene offers many perspectives|
I used to love this movie. This was back when I really loved art films and thought I knew more than any one else. I’m older now, and realize I don’t know much at all, and I know there’s a place for art films and place for popcorn flicks. American Beauty is a very good film, but misses greatness for me. Its got a bit of a dark sense of humor to it, and that makes it entertaining. But it does feel a bit heavy on the delivery of the message over the telling of the story. It makes the film feel heavy-handed at times, and the methodical pacing isn’t completely warranted in all aspects. For a first time film director, it’s an impressive feat. It also showed us Mendes two great strengths were apparent from the beginning – strong visuals and the ability to get great performances out of his actors.
|The red door hides many secrets. Look closer...|