#9 American Beauty
(1999, Sam Mendes)
“There’s nothing worse than being ordinary”
Suburbia is a strange concept. On its surface, it appears to be an idyllic living arrangement. Beautiful houses, pristine gardens, a good location (not right in the middle of the city, but not so far out in the country you’re cut off from civilisation), with neighbours who get on and help each other out. But, as movies such as American Beauty have raised, time and time again, is that in order to attain this “utopia”, certain sacrifices have to be made, specifically the idea of natural identity in favour of “keeping up with the Joneses” and maintaining the façade that all is happy and well.
American Beauty examines this seedy underbelly, and in fact, this is the entire point of the movie. Kevin Spacey plays our protagonist, Lester Burnham, who lives with his wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch) in a life that on the surface is perfect and quaint, but in reality, Lester is bored. There’s no love in his marriage, his daughter hates him, his job is soul-sucking and uninspiring and he feels trapped.
He is also going to die very soon. This isn’t a spoiler, since it’s announced at the beginning of the film that it chronicles the events leading up to his untimely death. But the purpose of the movie is not the destination, it’s the journey we take.
The movie is primarily about Lester’s mid-life crisis. During the course of the movie, he falls in love with his daughter’s best friend and befriends Ricky, the teenage boy next door (who later becomes his daughter’s boyfriend). This friendship leads to him questioning his view of everything, and he slowly gains confidence to fight back against the feelings of dread he’s been suffering. He quits his job, buys a fast car and begins smoking weed.
But the beauty of this plot is that everyone else he meets has their own crisis going on, and these little plot strands are all tightly woven together. They also never quite go where you expect them to, and just when you think you’re following clues and shaping the ending, the movie frequently pulls the rug out from you. An opening scene that initially seems important later proves inconsequential when it’s revisited later, and huge hints regarding the nature of Lester’s death prove to be nothing more than red herrings. But the best part of all this is that the events that do transpire make perfect sense, you just never see them coming.
The characters in this movie are all horrible people, it must be said, but they are portrayed so perfectly you can’t help but enjoy their company. All the performances are phenomenal, and the characters retain some degree of likeability despite having little to no redeeming qualities. It could have been so easy to turn these characters into caricatures based on the events, but, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, nothing ever turns out the way you expect it to.
American Beauty is brilliant. I always try and be objective with these reviews, but the only fault I could find with this movie was the slightly dodgy CGI effects used in Lester’s dream sequences, which are actually quite few and far between anyway. The scripting is tight, the acting is perfect, the music and visuals are spot-on, and it truly is a movie that keeps you on your toes. A must-see for everyone.
Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Allison Janney, Peter Gallagher, Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley & Chris Cooper
Written by Alan Ball
Produced by Bruce Cohen & Dan Jinks
Music by Thomas Newman
Favourite Scene: I always revel a little too much in the scene where Lester quits his job. It’s brazen and it’s over the top and it’s glorious to watch.
Scene That Bugged Me: Ricky and Jane watch his home movie about a floating bag and discuss the nature of beauty. It’s one of the movies most famous scenes, and yet I always found it a bit pretentious. I end up distracting myself through knowing the score for this scene was sampled by Jakatta.
Watch it if: You’ve ever questioned the nature of suburbia.
Avoid it if: Stuff has become more important to you than living. Honey, that’s just nuts.
Originally posted on Blogspot Wednesday 26 October 2011