WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Lester Burnham is treading water, drifting away from his wife and daughter and about to be made unemployed, when his eye is taken by his daughter’s seductive friend Angela. Lester embarks on a mission to please himself in all things and make himself more attractive to the young girl, much to the violent horror of those around him, one of whom is determined to stop him in his tracks.
Sam Mendes’ Oscar-laden debut film ‘looks closer’ (as the tagline has it) into the lives of perfectly normal-looking American families on a pleasant suburban street, and finds that appearances can be deceptive. The Burnhams, for example, have the immaculately-upholstered house, two cars and a beautifully kept garden, but in truth the family are at a dead end: Lester (Kevin Spacey) is sleepwalking into middle-age, his lacklustre performance at work putting his job in jeopardy; his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), meanwhile, is ruthlessly focused on building her own career as a [Real] estate agent*, constantly fighting off dissenting inner voices. Neither parent has noticed that their daughter Jane (Thora Birch) has drifted away from them, and when they do show up to half-heartedly support her cheerleading efforts at a basketball game Lester only has eyes for Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari). Whilst Jane is freaked out by her father’s clumsy approaches, Angela is a precocious attention-seeker and her leading-on of Lester leads him into wild fantasy.
Jane, meanwhile, has an admirer of her own in the form of Ricky (Wes Bentley), the boy from next door whose fixed gaze is always accompanied by the trained lens of his camcorder. Ricky, with an independent income from dealing pot, answers to no-one except his bullying marine father, a gun collector with a taste for Third Reich paraphernalia and a suspiciously extreme distaste for homosexuals, such as the pair who live two doors away. Using leverage gained from fourteen years spent working for his employers, Lester gets a year’s salary in redundancy and proceeds to regress into a second adolescence: weightlifting, smoking drugs and buying his dream car, whilst Carolyn flees into the arms of smarmy, confident competitor Buddy King (Peter Gallagher). Jane, disgusted by the actions of both of her parents, symbolically gives herself to Ricky and the tension of the film builds, with many of the major characters owning or talking about guns, to a rainy night where Lester and young Angela are left on their own.
Since he tells us so in the first few minutes of the film, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Lester ends up dead at the end of American Beauty. However, as he also tells us, he was in a sense already dead, limited by the restrictive boundaries of his frustrating little life, and the way Lester reacts to this realisation provides the drama in Alan Ball’s intelligent script. While the idea of unhappy families is not particularly original (having fuelled soap operas since the year dot), the poison Ball injects into Lester’s weary asides or Carolyn’s sarcastic perkiness is potent. The atmosphere of hatred that surrounds the Burnhams – physically, they are set apart from each other and unable or unwilling to reach out – gives the film nearly all of its power, and although the dropped clues and gathering of potential killers towards Lester provides the film with a narrative structure, it is really something of a red herring (a MacGuffin, if you like) because the interest is in the characters rather than the story: of course Lester can’t go through with his seduction of Angela; he loves his family too much, though whether he could possibly find a way of expressing this we will never know.
The tension of the script is aided immeasurably by Spacey and Bening’s acting. Bening is a coiled spring of self-loathing, her chirpy mask often slipping to suggest verbal abuse (at the very least) as a child which is destined to be passed on to Jane; and Spacey simultaneously pulls off the ‘F*ck you’ attitude of a slacker in a middle-aged man’s body and the creepy disposition of a near-paedophile with enough residual charm for the audience not to hate him. Chris Cooper is also superb as the marine Colonel, outwardly single-minded in his views but internally as confused as his soporific wife (Allison Janney).
Then you have the younger cast. Suvari, Birch and Bentley are all perfectly fine, Suvari in particular doing well as the girl who exudes confidence because she has none, but watching the film now I cannot help but find Bentley’s character a little off-putting: partially because he has a series of overly convenient quid pro quo arrangements with ‘clients,’ but mainly because of his camcorder obsession and his quest to find the ‘life behind things’ as he records them. I understand that as there is little that can be considered truly beautiful in modern life, you have to find it where you see it, and the film considers American beauty to exist in the mundane and prosaic, or just underneath it. However, the famous sequence of the bag dancing in the wind struck me as pretentious when the film was released and is very difficult to take seriously now (perhaps it has been parodied too much). The score adds to a sense that the film is reaching for significance, when the viewer is still debating whether to go with the mainstream opinion that Ricky is, to put it bluntly, a bit tapped.
American Beauty is an interesting film to watch in the 21st Century, and it is perhaps the time of viewing that reduces my sympathy for the characters as much as anything else (poor old Lester and his not-quite-perfect-life!); it doesn’t quite work as a murder mystery, and certainly isn’t half as profound as it wishes to be. Nonetheless, as a snapshot of fin-de-siècle suburban dissatisfaction the film is beautifully framed, with wonderfully colourful sequences that blur the edges between reality and fantasy; and the venomous dialogue and great performances more than make up for occasional lapses into pseudo-intellectual art-school discussion. Just over a decade old, American Beauty is already a fascinating historical portrait.
NOTES: A good example of being divided by a common language. I’ve never understood why, in North America, people selling houses have to insist that the estate they’re selling is ‘real,’ in the same way I never understood why the cartoon of Ghostbusters had to be called The Real Ghostbusters, especially since they were manifestly just drawings.