17 years after it won critical acclaim (and a handful of Oscars), we revisit Sam Mendes’ heartbreaking portrayal of suburban claustrophobia and cultural narcissism.
American Beauty is the sort of film that, in the hands of a different team of filmmakers and starring a different set of actors, could be unbearably miserable to the level of being unwatchable. It deals with ugly problems in a grim environment, dealt with by characters who are best described as “difficult”. There are 99 ways American Beauty could have been done wrong, but- pitching the tone point-blank perfectly between light and dark- director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball got it so, so right.
The film opens with a voiceover by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), stating matter-of-factly that “one year from now, I will be dead”. This sets the tone for what is, in its lighter moments, a pitch black comedy. Lester is shown masturbating in the shower, clumsily dropping his briefcase as his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch) wait impatiently in the family car and cynically answering calls in a magazine office. Lester’s life is presented as the height of painful monotony, and it’s immediately apparent that this man will suffer a midlife crisis in the near future. What ultimately provokes Lester to take action is an intense infatuation with Jane’s schoolfriend Angela, who catches his attention during a cheerleading performance and becomes the subject of his vividly-realised sexual fantasies.
Lacking any real character outside of her vanity and flirtation, Angela is the embodiment of cultural narcissism. She falsely boasts of her promiscuity to Jane, and motivates Lester to start working out when he overhears her criticise his unimpressive arms. Angela could be perceived as a tragic figure, with no visible family support nor friends outside Jane (hardly a sign of popularity), and her climactic confrontation with Lester is perhaps the saddest scene in the film.
While it is Angela whose stereotypical “beauty” Lester lusts after, the film’s primary message is to look past this poster-adorning blonde, as Wes Bentley’s Ricky does, to the far more interesting and thoughtful Jane. Ricky, who becomes Lester’s weed dealer while avoiding the attention of his disciplinarian father (Chris Cooper), habitually films what he considers “beautiful” with his VHS camcorder. His favourite piece of footage is a simple plastic bag floating in the wind, and when he shows this video to Jane, the films comes extremely close to insufferable saccharinity but is saved by Thomas Newman’s heart-wrenching score (truly the making of American Beauty).
After catching him filming her several times, Jane and Ricky become romantically involved, and it is quite clear than in a world of doleful and hateful adults, the life in this pair is a breath of fresh air. Bentley’s startlingly intense gaze and almost-psychopathically monotone voice makes him the perfect choice for the mysterious but alluring Ricky, while Birch is best when expressing her disgust at Lester’s treatment of Angela (a creepy silent phone call; the immortal line “You like… muscles” as she strokes his fresh biceps).
Almost entirely unrelated to the Lester/Angela and Jane/Ricky action is a subplot involving Carolyn’s affair with realtor Buddy Kane. Buddy is truly the film’s most irredeemably disgusting character, selfishly abandoning the deeply damaged Carolyn when Lester discovers their affair. It’s debatable that the film would be just as powerful, though 20 odd minutes shorter, if Carolyn’s story was never told (it’s nowhere near as memorable as the primary plot), but it works as an excellent female counterpoint to Lester’s overwhelming testosterone-fuelled midlife crisis. The audience may find themselves caring as little about Carolyn’s private life as her husband does, but this is not the cause of a flaw in the script nor in Bening’s performance, but in the audience themselves.
Some of the most fascinating moments of the film are those featuring Ricky’s mother Barbara (Allison Janney), a woman of few words who has likely suffered great psychological abuse from her pathologically repressed husband. Janney is marvellous; a scene-stealer as always, yet one almost forgets the existence of her character when she is not onscreen.
This is extremely telling: the level of detail in Ball’s script is extraordinary, and that the film remains as coherent and straightforward as it does with a seemingly endless array of thematic deconstructions (concepts of beauty, behaviour, business, politeness, arousal and fear- to name but a few) is testament to the incredible, yet-to-be-repeated work of first-time director Sam Mendes. American Beauty in, in every sense of the word, haunting. It’s a film best watched at night, because to watch it earlier would leave you profoundly distracted for the rest of your day. It requires significant effort to identify what aspects of the world Lester (The finest role of Spacey’s career) and his strange family and neighbours occupy can be considered beautiful. Far easier to see, and indisputable, is the absolute beauty of Mendes’ film.