American Beauty may seem like one more flick showcasing the ananity of American suburban life, but American Beauty is also a bitterly funny and beautifully crafted film, exposing the drunkenness, the furtive masturbation, the passion for lagoon pools and striped sofas.
It's a movie that records what's precious in the suburbs, describing in terms both tender and resentful, the beauty of childhood, replaying itself in your mind long after you've left the theater, thanks largely to Kevin Spacey's lustrous performance as Lester Burnham, a cracked eggshell of a man who manages to rediscover his lost vitality.
American Beauty (we recommend the Widescreen Edition) opens with a camcorder vision of Janie Burnham (Thora Birch) lambasting her drippy father Lester (Kevin Spacey), "How could he not be damaging me?" she asks her interviewer-cum-boyfriend, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). "I mean, I too need structure. A little f*cking discipline."
The camera tracks into a protected, tree-lined street while Lester explains himself from beyond the grave. He pokes fun at his dumb life: his success-obsessed wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), and their teenaged daughter Jane, his boss; a thirty-ish VP who rides Lester's ass hard, their dandy neighbors Jim and Jim - all inmates in an air-conditioned prison of modern American angst.
They have all the ticky-tacky of an upwardly mobile middle-class family, but they've lost themselves in the clutter. Lester in particular is on the verge of disappearing altogether.
He's a disappointment to Carolyn and an embarrassment his daughter by shifting into teen mode, fantasizing about desperately running to Angela, the head cheerleader and his daughter's friend, to regain some of the abandoned sexiness of his youth, but he hasn't let anyone down more than himself.
He begins his days by jerking off in the shower, and he spends the rest of his time in a fog, wondering where it all went wrong. He's a receding schlump of a man - at dinner he sits with his chair pulled back so far from the table that he can barely reach his plate - and now that he's about to be downsized out of his job, he'll never be able to provide the fantasy life that Carolyn craves.
Every relationship intensifies to an unbearable heat, keeping you enthralled to the very end. But all leave that for you discover in the movie theater, except to say he doesn't go quitly, instead jump-starting his whole existance.
He quits his job (in a gut-busting scene) and begins working out and smoking pot, amusing himself by saying what's been on his mind all these years, like a man coming out of a coma, because he's had it up to here with appearances and all the crap that's been oppressing him. ("The new me whacks off whenever I feel horny," he notifies a horrified Carolyn when she catches him masturbating in bed next to her.)
This movie has won so many awards that I won't even bother to list them, except to say 'all of the above'.
Scriptwriter Alan Ball weave a delicate balance of visual metaphor and apologia that Director Mendes expresses perfectly in his breathtaking images of found visual symbols (roses and eggshells) that simplify the difficult questions of how much control and freedom children need to grow, to find their own happiness in being.