A Crowd Pleaser


American Beauty (1999) Review 5
Director:Sam Mendes,
Starring:Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher
Length:121 minutes


Philosophers throughout the ages have been plagued by questions of reality, normality, and regularity; in essence, the integrity of things as we perceive them to be. The earliest and most famous analysis of this subject is Plato’s dialogue Allegory of the Cave. Therein he discusses the possibility that individuals subjected to sameness their entire life would take that sameness to be “normal,” when in fact it might be anything but. Debut director Sam Mendes’ dramedy American Beauty may not rank among such thoughtful or high-minded discussions of the topic of regularity, but when it comes to cinema, it’s hard to find a better production of the subject.

At the center of this discussion is Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a man whose terminally boring existence is revived one unremarkable evening when he has lustful thoughts of his daughter’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari). He does this at the expense of angering his shrewish wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and alienating his daughter Jane (Thora Birch), but he realizes that these changes are necessary steps on the path to self-redemption.

In the wings, however, Carolyn and Jane are also embarking on their own journeys: control freak Carolyn has a fitful fling with a rival real estate agent named the King (Peter Gallagher) and recessive Jane strikes up a relationship with a voyeuristic guy-next-door named Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). In some ways, it’s Ricky’s straightforwardness that begins the ordeal that is American Beauty, implicitly convincing Lester through idle conversation to free himself from his depressingly sober ways and live the life he wants to.

As Lester, Kevin Spacey gives an amazingly dynamic performance. Over the course of 120 minutes, he’s able to transition himself from a listless drone to a man who embraces his midlife crisis with a strange sense of renewal. There are times when American Beauty is Jerry Maguire ten or fifteen years later, out of the yuppie’s world and into the sphere of the baby boomer. The theme of giving it all up with no thought of the future is certainly present, as when Lester quits his job, he tells his boss, “I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.”

Annette Bening, on the other hand, is rather one-note and unsympathetic. It’s a good thing her character isn’t the movie’s center of attention, because more often than not she’s simply a shrieking banality of necessity. Without her the movie wouldn’t seem as “normal.”

In the supporting roles, Wes Bentley is by far the best, giving a subtly deep turn as the kid next door. Thora Birch is good at acting depressed, and Mena Suvari is appropriately superficial; Chris Cooper rounds out the bunch as Ricky’s ex-Marine of a father in a dark role.

This is a most impressive feature for director Sam Mendes to begin his career with. He shows a very firm grasp of the wholeness of motion pictures, keeping the larger picture in mind while focusing on minute details of each scene. When all of the subplots and characters come together in the movie’s final takes, he’s done far more than was asked by providing a very profound sense of closure to the issue. Although there are times, especially during the second half, when the movie gets bogged down with its attempts to be artsy, Mendes manages to keep the picture headed straight for its destination.

Perhaps the reason that Mendes’ film is such an enjoyment is that it stretches the limits of reality without ever breaking them. There are plenty of shocking moments in American Beauty, but none of them ever seems outlandish or implausible. Rather, this is an enlightening and rewarding portrayal of suburban regularity, and the many faces of reality that hide underneath.