American Beauty (1999)

Info SidebarLester Burnham is undergoing a mid-life crisis. His job is insignificant; his presence there even more so. At home, his wife can’t say two words to him without bursting into a fit of rage. Their marriage has been without love and sex for years, probably because Lester masturbates in bed while thinking of more attractive younger girls. His wife wants a divorce. He knows she can’t get one. His daughter, Jane, has retreated to her inner sanctum, where her self-esteem has been pared by her parents’ constant arguing and her best friend’s Miss Universe sex appeal. She wants breast implants even though they are clearly not needed, and at dinner she calls her mother’s favourite song “elevator music”. She acts out, she says, because Lester has abandoned all attempts of getting to know her.

American Beauty, a movie gorgeously written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, dips itself into the lives of all these people without wanting to know what will happen to them. The Burnhams represent an American family living in the suburbs, and yet they are not like most families. Their problems border on the absurd, and they make no effort to conceal them. At times they even look demented because of them.

Lester is played by Kevin Spacey, who usually excels as the bad guy in his movies because he can perfectly synchronise his eyes, mouth and voice to convey insanity. In American Beauty, there are many moments where he looks insane, and even more where he does insane things. His life is in a rut; one evening he and his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), attend Jane’s cheerleading routine at the school basketball game, despite Jane’s best efforts to keep them away. As the routine reaches fever pitch Lester spots Angela (Mena Suvari), the blonde pixie leader of the squad who, through clever cinematography and lighting choices, appears to only dance for Lester’s entertainment. Lester, meanwhile, sits alone in the stands, mouth agape. He has been struck by a thunderbolt, his opening to turn his life around.

After the game, Jane (Thora Birch) introduces him to Angela; his gaze never leaves the surface of her face. What’s effective about Spacey’s performance is that we can always guess, if not determine, what he’s thinking by looking at him. He wants, probably more so than anything else, to know Angela better, intimately. His eyes have already undressed her, now his mind is filling in the blanks. There is perhaps nothing wrong with this — men are programmed to do what they do when it comes to the opposite sex — but to his daughter, Angela is a hazard.

The Burnhams are placed between two eccentric households. On one side resides Jim and Jim, a gay couple who enjoys jogging and buying flowers. On the other are the Fitts, a military family who has just moved in. Their son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), recently released from a mental institution, has a penchant for filming random and mundane events in his life and sees beauty in them. When he and Jane get together, he shows her a video of a plastic bag swirling around a pavement in a mini vortex. It’s especially moving because the video is really very beautiful.

The story by Ball takes some expected turns and some unexpected ones. There’s an affair thrown in for good measure, and there’s a subplot about Ricky’s drug-dealing escapades that acts as a cover just like the fake bottom of his dresser drawer. But the characters never see the expected turns coming. They have convinced themselves that they live at right angles to society, so when an expectation arrives, they naturally avoid it. You’d be surprised, and relieved, by the result of Lester’s and Angela’s game of love (lust). Even the scene that takes place in Lester’s garage on a stormy night is not preordained by the necessities of the plot; it acts as an ominous portent that pays off with extreme prejudice.

Most domestic movies charge only one or two characters with the emotional responsibilities. American Beauty makes everyone we meet sympathetic. Lester has a fountain of problems. His problems are shared by Carolyn, who deals with them in an unhealthy way. Jane is full of self doubt and sees solace in Ricky, the videotaping stalker. Ricky has a dark past and a darker present. When confronted by his aggressive father (Chris Cooper), he resorts to speaking like a castrated army cadet — “Yes sir, thank you for trying to teach me!”. At first, his father plays into cliche’s hands; he is the world-hating, homophobic, self-righteous army retiree who stills believes his service is not yet ended. But he is not so straight. There are twists and turns to his character that make him a man of many faces, some even he cannot bear to look at. Ricky’s mother (Allison Janney) is a quiet woman whose role doesn’t amount to more than cooking breakfast and sitting around the table, blank. It is suggested that she’s mentally unstable, and hinted that her instability is because of her husband, who possesses a violent streak. And then there’s Angela, who has it all: Looks, charm, sex appeal, fame and recognition. She has Jane believing that she can get whatever she wants, including Jane’s father. She might have Jane fooled, but not us. We know what’s going on inside her, even if she has chosen not to. By the end, American Beauty is more about everyone who lives on the street than it is about Lester Burnham.


Best Moment | Ricky in Lester’s house, facilitating a drug trade while Ricky’s father spies on them from across the fence. Or Carolyn getting caught at the drive-thru. Or the climax. Or the entire film.

Worst Moment | Nope.

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