American Beauty (1999)
R / 122 min
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch
Director: Sam Mendes
Mid-life crises hit people hard. They’re usually drastic and come completely from left field. They have the potential to make you do weird things…things you’ll regret after it’s all over. American Beauty, the academy award winning drama from director Sam Mendes, gives us a peek into the life of Lester Burnham, a suburban father who finds himself smack dab in the middle of a mid-life crisis. A really weird one as well. What takes place during the movie is fascinating piece of work.
Kevin Spacey plays the sexually-frustrated Lester, which might be one of his best roles to date. As he narrates the movie, we get introduced to the many annoyances that plague his life. Lester’s wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a stressed out real estate agent who needs to take a chill pill. Bening give a great performance, it’s just a shame that her character gets no redeeming moments at all throughout the course of the movie, but that was most likely Mendes’ goal. On the other hand, we have Lester’s daughter Jane, played by Thora Birch, whose bad tempered and generally unfriendly. American Beauty is family dysfunction to a T. It’s no surprise that Lester is bored with life, because he certainly isn’t getting any pleasures from his family.
Things quickly start to take a weird turn when Lester is introduced to Jane’s cheerleading friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). She puts him into a state of trance, giving him feelings he hasn’t experienced in a long while. She essentially drives him to quit his job, work out, and smoke weed. He even buys a new car. Topping it all off, he begins to have fantasies about Angela where she’s always covered in roses. The symptoms of a mid-life crisis. Not perverted enough for you yet? Well, we’re also introduced to Rick (Wes Bentley), the kid from next door who has a drug problem and a knack for filming people from his window. There’s a scene where he is filming Lester work out in his garage naked from his bedroom. Like I said, the movie isn’t afraid to get weird.
At first I didn’t know where this movie was going. I knew that the outcome was heading for the worse, but I didn’t know how it was going to get there. Then the third act came into play and it all started to come together and make sense. I started to learn things about characters that we previously didn’t know and the pieces started putting themselves together. It was enthralling to watch it all play out. It was a depressing ending, but it made a lot of sense. It came together brilliantly, which is the product of good screenwriting.
Perhaps the most enticing storyline of them all was the relationship between Rick and his family. His mother doesn’t really speak much and his father, played by Peter Gallagher, is an ex-military prim-and-proper type. Rick is a mentally estranged kid who has had problems with drugs in the past. As the movie goes on, things get more tense in the family as Rick develops a relationship with Jane. On the outset it might not seem like a big deal but Rick’s father gets the wrong idea, which is where things start to get interesting.
Everything about American Beauty works really well. Everything from the imagery to the performances make the film a stand-out. It’s no surprise that the movie got well received by the Academy. Every character is chasing their own version of the American dream, but they all fall short in their own ways. It’s a smart movie that comes together in an illustrious way, which is a surprise given the fact that this was Mendes’ directorial debut. American Beauty is an example of films done right. Also, nothing ever good comes from having an infatuation with your daughter’s friend. Just don’t do it.