Retrospective: American Beauty (1999)


American Beauty was sold under the tagline ‘look closer’. It’s an astounding, remarkable movie which lives up to its hype and plethora of Oscars. It is the movie that Sam Mendes will forever be remembered for, with its unique take on the hidden secrets of suburbia, its snide look at voyeurism and film making, as well as how it explores perceived and expected realities, conformity, beauty, imprisonment, redemption, sexuality, repression and more. It is basically a really deep and moving film with some fantastic dialogue.

It’s essentially about suburbia, in particular one (sort of) typical American family, the Burnhams. The father is Lester (Kevin Spacey), a depressed middle aged man who loathes his job, his family don’t seem to like him and he is about to be fired. There is then his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), an ambitious estate agent and lastly there’s their daughter Jane (Thora Birch), who is a typical 90s teenager who has low self-esteem, despising her parents. The basic plot can be boil down to the following: Lester gets infatuated with his daughter’s best friend, a sex obsessed (but very naïve) blond, Angela (Mena Suvari), who he sees cheerleading with his daughter and this changes his life. His daughter finds a boyfriend who happens to be a next door neighbour with his own screwed up life and family and all these fellow misfits strangely fit into and screw up each others lives.

When looking at this movie it’s very important to look at its place within the cinema of its time. This movie was produced in 1999 which was a very productive time in the Hollywood ‘New Wave’ with Fight Club, Magnolia, Boys Don’t Cry among other hard hitting dramas about conformity, sexuality and reality. It also arrived at a time of a major boom in the academic reach of film and TV, meaning that if you just look at Wikipedia page of this movie you see an incredible amount of interpretations.

The film’s origin is inspired by the Amy Fisher trial and it was a period noted as a time of the breaking of taboos. This was a time when movies were being made which subverted traditional ideas. There was Memento (broken time), Clueless (re-setting Jane Austen’s Emma to a California high school) and of course Fight Club. It was a time when independent filmmakers broke out into the mainstream. American Beauty is one of the best of these movies because of its seamless move between dream and reality, especially in regards to Lester’s longing for Angela and his change in character as he finds a goal in his life returning to him.

The arc of the characters is impressive, not only Lester’s but also his neighbours Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) and his son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who provides a voyeuristic aspect as he films the daughter with a camera (with Rear Window like creepiness). This is used to great effect as his camera is filmed directly onto his TV which is facing the window. This voyeuristic aspect along with the character’s double life as a drug dealer and Wes Bentley’s dark and gloomy demeanour despite his character’s act of pretending to be a perfect child to his insane ex-Marine Corps father makes him really quite sinister. This clever usage of the camera both in the story and by the director is what makes this such a good piece of directing.

The development of characters is helped by the character narration as it really provides immersion into the mind of Lester, especially as it’s done so well. Kevin Spacey’s laconic delivery really provides a magnificent performance of world weariness as well as someone who understands the futility of life.

Hopefully I don’t sound to pretentious at it really is a funny movie with some wonderful dialogue which just fizzes, not least between Lester and Carolyn with their dramatically differing worldview and you see exactly where the love left their marriage:

Remember when you weren’t so serious that you flashed police helicopters on our terrace’

This is incredibly effective at showing a marriage just before the breakdown. It’s at the point when the love is gone and the emotional development between the two characters along with the growing maturity of his daughter and the various sub plots build fantastically into the climax of the movie. As everyone knows he dies at end (even Kick Ass says so) but the spoiler really is how does he die? To say so in simple terms would spoil it, even if I suspect most people who read this retrospective have already seen the movie!

What’s so very nice about this film is that it is set in just the one close-knit place which makes it so very cohesive. I do wonder why no one has ever tried to adapt in to the theatre as it feels like that sort of movie. It is a perfect example of something that would convert effortlessly into a theatrical setting, especially as Kevin Spacey runs the London Old Vic and Sam Mendes first made his career as a theatre director.

When looking at this movie and comparing it with what the director’s other work you see a common thread in his work. For example, Road to Perdition and Skyfall share similar themes to American Beauty such as family, trust, the role of understanding secrets and the importance of the past and loyalty. Lastly, the use of rain. It’s interesting how he sees rain as such an important part in his films. This is also an important aspect in his theatre productions, such as in his very traditional Twelfth Night which he did for The Old Vic as part of The Bridge Project. He is very good at getting good performances out his actors but in this movie he probably didn’t even have to work too hard as the cast are amazing, even those with small roles such as Allison Janney.

Review by Harry Riedl

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