American Beauty

Lester Burham (Kevin Spacey) hates his life. Where has the fun of his youth gone? Things used to be so easier, and now he’s trapped in a boring office job, which he leaves only to return to his alienating suburbia neighborhood to a wife (Annette Bening) who cares more about their furniture than him and a daughter (Thora Birch) who hates his guts. An insecure teen, Jane’s life gets even weirder when she brings home her best friend, a perky but conceited cheerleader Angela (Mena Suvari) and her dad becomes sexually obsessed with this Lolita. Meanwhile, her mother falls into the arms of fellow real estate agent and self-motivation obsessed materialist Buddy King (Peter Gallagher), who shows her unusual ways to let out the pressure she puts on herself. And then there’s Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) who moves next door. The son of a tyrannical, homophobic US Marine Colonel (Chris Cooper), he’s also a big time drug dealer who uses the money to finance his compulsive need to shoot on video the little things that go on around here. Ricky is an amazingly confident and serene young man who gleefully flows with all the beauty around him, and is able to see the beauty in Jane and to help Lester change his life by quitting his job, standing up to his wife, start pumping iron and going back to the careless joy of his high school days, smoking reefer and cranking up 70s rock while driving a 71 Firebird…

“American Beauty” is the amazing directorial debut of theater man Sam Mendes. Penned by TV writer Alan Ball, the script may feel like a sitcomish satire of suburban hell at first, but beyond the laughs lurks a fascinating exploration of people trying to convince themselves they’re not as miserable as they really are. It’s also somehow a tragedy, as we’re told right off that fatality will strike. Mendes makes great use of the possibilities of cinema. His film is always interesting and inventive visually, in an almost impressionistic way. Among other things, he makes very interesting use of American beauties, a variety of red roses that the wife cultivates and which Lester links to his fantasies. I also love the score by Thomas Newman, and the cast is as good as it gets. Annette Bening is convincing as always as an apparently successful career woman whose facade is shattering, and like Peter Gallagher’s, her character is a bit caricatural but still effective. Thora Birch is perfect as her confused daughter, and so is Mena Suvari as her babe girlfriend. Suvari (who was one of the best things in “American Pie”) is highly desirable at first, then she starts talking and gets obnoxious, but eventually you get to really know her character and she’s just another sad kid. This is a surprising performance and so is the one delivered by Wes Bentley, who’s got solid screen presence and charisma as Ricky. He’s able to really grab your attention and toy with your expectations, maybe disturb you a little but ultimately impress you with his focused mind.

Last but not least is Kevin Spacey, who could and should get another Oscar for his astonishing portrayal of a man who spins his life around. It’s just so exhilarating to watch him gain confidence and retrieve hope in life. Spacey has done great work in the past, but this might be the role that he’ll be remembered for. He goes through many different states of mind and behaviors in the film, yet Spacey makes it feel all natural. This is one of these performances that stick with you and inspire you. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to follow Lester’s footsteps, but I wish I had. When I went to work after seeing the movie, I often caught myself grinning imagining what it would feel like to pull a Lester and write a letter telling my bosses exactly how I feel about them. And then there’s Spacey’s “got nothing to lose” attitude and return to an adolescent mind state which is so funny! It’s always fun to watch someone being a smartass and making uptight types speechless for once. Spacey is almost like Bill Murray in this movie, with more psychological depth of course but I still could easily imagine Murray saying lines like “I rule!”. “American Beauty” follows the steps of films like “The Ice Storm”, “Happiness” and “Election”, but it has its own refreshing, uplifting flavor. Some might see that as a setback, but so what if this is more “Forrest Gump” than “Blue Velvet”? I’m personally grateful to any picture that gives me a new respect towards life. “American Beauty” is one of the year’s very best pictures.