Oscar Movie Month: "American Beauty" Review

Photo Credit: DreamWorks Distribution

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Rating: R
Length: 122 minutes
Release Date: October 1, 1999
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Genre: Drama

Directed by Sam Mendes, who is also known for directing movies such as "Revolutionary Road" and "Jarhead," this 1999 movie shows the darker side of American perfection. The family shown in the film outwardly has it all. The father and mother live in a harmonious marriage where he has a steady job and she is perfectly put together at all times. They share one daughter who is navigating her way through the teenage years the best way she knows how. While everything seems all right, there is much, much more beneath the surface.

The main character of this movie, Lester Burnham, is played by Kevin Spacey. Spacey is best-known for his roles in "L.A. Confidential" and "The Usual Suspects." His character in "American Beauty" is facing a hopeless, depression-filled midlife crisis. He feels unloved by his wife and daughter, and he feels unappreciated at work. One of his first lines in this film is that he "will be dead in a year." This line hints at his desperation and just how little life he feels running through his veins. His yearning for meaning and appreciation really hits home with viewers, and it is easy to understand why he feels the way he does.

In an attempt to move forward and continue on with his life, Lester engages in family dinners and even attends his daughter's cheerleading events. At one of these events is where his life changes dramatically, as he catches a glimpse of his daughter Jane's friend Angela. Jane is played by Thora Birch, most recognized for her role in "Now and Then," while the role of Angela is played by Mena Suvari, who is famous for her parts in the "American Pie" movies.

Jane is chronically jealous of Angela's good looks, a feeling that female viewers of "American Beauty" can understand. However, when Lester catches that one glimpse of Angela, he notices too. Spacey's character becomes infatuated with Angela, but does his best to keep this fact hidden from his family and from her. However, the way he looks at her and the things he says, while mostly innocent, bring his feelings front and center. He uses this insatiable lust as his inspiration to drag himself out of his depression and turn around his life.

Kevin Spacey's mannerisms and characteristics as Lester are so perfectly executed that his pain and yearning are both extremely believable and totally relatable. During the course of Lester's transformation, movie watchers are left wondering what he is thinking. The actions he takes, such as quitting his job and blackmailing his boss for $60,000, are shocking, but not nearly as shocking as when Angela starts coming on to him. Viewers sense the tension in the scenes and many times wish Lester's foolish and reckless behavior would stop. However, by the end of the movie, the consensus about Lester is extremely different, and he is no longer a nobody.

Meanwhile, as Lester is sorting through his own issues and transforming his life, his daughter cannot wait to escape home. She hates her life and is constantly depressed. She sees the beauty in her friend and wishes for the same attention from men. Besides Angela, the one main person she speaks to and finds refuge in is her neighbor, Ricky. Ricky is the son of a career Marine, and his father severely disapproves of his film making. Like Jane, Ricky yearns to escape the suburban prison in which they are trapped. These characters have a deep sadness about them, allowing viewers to feel sorry for them almost immediately. 

Carolyn, Lester's wife, is played by Annette Bening, known for her roles in "The American President" and "Mars Attacks!" She is a loveless wife and a very uptight mother, and her inner struggles prevent her from being the person she once was, at least in the eyes of Lester. As the movie progresses, viewers learn that she is having an affair and just how horrible and nasty she is to Lester. Movie watchers either feel sorry for her, because it is obvious she has a void in her life she is trying to fill, or hate her because of how awful she is.

"American Beauty" shows what happens when the American Dream does not go quite as planned. It seems as though each character is in pursuit of their own definition of beauty: in life, in themselves and in general. While the overtone of the movie is sadness and depression, "American Beauty" shows that everyone finds their own way to escape to happiness.

Rating: 4 out of 5