Runtime: 2 Hours
and 1 Minute
"American Beauty" is a lot of things, but to me, it's the
amazing tour-de-force about a man who is "almost dead" with
his job and family, but makes the changes necessary for him to enjoy
life again. It's good to get the power back, and this movie drills
that point home.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is the main character, a man whose relationship
with his wife is nothing but a front, whose relationship with his
daughter is non-existent, and who is now being forced to justify himself
at work. He's married to Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening), a driven
realtor with no respect for him. The same goes for his daughter Jane
(Thora Birch), who mostly views her dad as an odd sort going through
Lester is dying, not in the literal sense. He gets little joy out
of life. His family hates him. He hates his job. Nightly dinners are
filled with insults. And one day, that all changes. Lester views his
perfect woman, 15-year-old Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), a cheerleader
friend of his daughter's. And once again, he starts to feel young.
It doesn't stop there. Yes, he will tread dangerously in his pursuit
of her. But he'll also meet the new next door neighbors' kid Ricky
Fitts (Wes Bentley), who seems to embody the things Lester would like
to be. Neither want to abide by society's rules, and neither do. Lester
takes the lead and runs with it.
Most of the movie's comic situations arise from Lester gleefully breaking
the "rules". He's going to make himself enjoy life, even
if that means working out to get Angela's attention, buying the dream
car he always wanted (without consulting his wife) or telling his
boss where to shove it. Kevin Spacey is perfect in this role. I couldn't
picture anybody else pulling this off.
Everything comes together in one day where a series of misunderstandings
and strange occurrences lead to conflicts galore. Yet, without giving
anything away, Lester is a happier man in the end. He will lose a
lot of things in the course of the movie, but he'll gain the feeling
of being young and in control once again.
"American Beauty" is often dark and depressing, but there's
always a light at the end of the tunnel. I was surprised how deep
the movie got, especially in the last half-hour.
In a lot of ways, "American Beauty" is an anthem. It's the
battle cry for those looking to break out and once again live the
life they expected. Early in the movie, Lester calls Ricky his "newest
hero." By the end of the film, it's Lester who's the hero.
"My name is Lester Burnham. I am forty-two years old. In less than
a year, I'll be dead."
With these words opens the most hypnotic, poetic, life-affirming film
of the year, and easily one of the best films of the decade.
The genius of "American Beauty" is not easy to describe. It
is not easy to explain. The movie is not like your average film. It
is, in fact, a movie unlike any that I have seen. More than anything
I believe this suggests that the film is well on its way to becoming
It is a simple tale. It is the tale of a neighborhood. More specifically,
it is the story of a family. The Burnhams. Lester Burnham (the main
focus of the film, its imperfect heart, in fact) is a man facing the
middle of his life with little or no interest. He's the sort of man
whom people don't remember meeting. His ordinariness is the bane of
His wife, Carolyn, would seem to the source of many of his problems,
but that would be unfair. She has a few problems of her own. She is
better at hiding them, that's all. So good that she barely acknowledges
them to herself.
Their daughter, Janie, is perhaps the most well-adjusted. She has made
no illusions about life. She is insecure, unhappy with herself, and
searching for something better. Something which her parents begin to
do through the course of the movie.
"American Beauty" is a rare, beautiful movie. It is a movie
that could easily be depressing. As Lester tells us when we first meet
him, he is doomed. Thus Lester's metamorphosis becomes poignant and
sad. As we see him striving, experimenting and discovering, we know
that it will all end much too soon. As Lester, Kevin Spacey delivers
a marvelous performance. The sort of performance that The Academy might
overlook, but which the history of cinema certainly will not. This is
a daring, brilliant performance. The sort of thing so good that a lesser
actor might get typecast for it.
In fact, all the performances are superb. Annette Bening brings sadness
and pain to a role which could have easily degenerated into yet another
domineering bitch. It's really quite amazing. As are the other performances
in the picture: Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts (a character we don't quite
know what to make of), Thora Birch as Janie, Mena Suvari as the seemingly-well-adjusted
cheerleader (who isn't quite as healthy as she seems) and the rest all
give their all, imbuing American Beauty with amazing tenderness and
The film is, from beginning to end, a triumph of script, visuals, direction,
acting, editing, you name it. This is a film focusing not on special
effects or plot, but instead on humanity itself. It triumphs because
it shines its light onto us and makes us examine our own soul.
And that is the most special effect of all.