Oscar Review: American Beauty (1999)

A surreal tale of self-realization, lust, and unapologetic behavior American Beauty is an interesting look at one man’s story during the last year of his life.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a sedate man, tired of being bossed around by his cheating wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and not getting anywhere with his teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch). After being asked to fill out a job description for a job he’s held for most of his adult life, Lester loses it and blackmails his company so he can finally live the life he’s always wanted.

While attending a school basketball game, Lester begins to fantasize over Jane’s best friend Angela (Mena Suvari) and begins to imagine how wonderful it would be to be with such a young, beautiful girl. This, of course, only adds to the distance that is already present in his relationship with Jane.

When new neighbors move in next door, Jane begins a relationship with the social outcast son, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) – who becomes Lester’s supplier of designer pot. With a controlling former Marine colonel for a father (Chris Cooper) and an emotionally vacant mother (Allison Janney) Ricky must hide his dealings out of fear of being sent back to military school.

After quitting his job, Lester remembers that his happiest times were as a high school student flipping burgers to save up for his first car. And so, the obvious answer is for him to live out his mid-life crisis and become the person he feels he needs to be, and thus driving Carolyn insane and into the arms of the “Real Estate King” (Peter Gallagher).
*****
The first time I saw American Beauty in the theater I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I just didn’t get it. But when I saw it again, everything clicked and it has become a favorite.

Winning 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor (Spacey), Director (Sam Mendes, in his directorial debut), Cinematography, and Original Screenplay (Alan Ball), this film is phenomenal. It’s abstract, it’s emotional, it’s off-beat, and it’s a brilliant piece.

From the symbolism of Lester’s computer screen at the beginning – the data and reflection make it look like he’s trapped in his job – to the obscure plastic bag and Ricky’s fascination with Lester’s dead body American Beauty makes the audience pay attention and “look closer” than perhaps they are used to.

One of my favorite things about movies like this – and my favorite TV shows, for that matter – is that one of its first assumptions is that the audience is intelligent. There are so many films that get made that are very shallow, superficial, and rather simplistic to appease an audience that has become demanding of dumbed-down entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy turning off my brain long enough to enjoy stupidly funny movies, but there are times when I want to watch something that evokes a deep emotional response or challenges my mind a bit more than I’m used to. And, on many levels, American Beauty is one of those films.

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