When the Filmoria team were asked to make their selection for this ongoing feature, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty was my immediate choice. In a weird way it felt inevitably obvious, as it fell into that proverbial bowl of ‘the essential films you need to see’.
But I incidentally found myself questioning why had I not given this Best Picture winner the time it so apparently deserved. It somehow slipped through the net during my formative years, where I gradually became enamoured with movies. And from all the hyperbole and plaudits bestowed upon it, somehow eventually became unceremoniously repelled by the film (also see La La Land).
I was always aware of American Beauty‘s central plot. An American man finds himself at a proverbial crossroad in his life, and begins to lust after his teenage daughter’s friend. Pretty straightforward to anticipate and follow, right? I can only guess my ill-conceived perceptions was that the subject material was beyond any interest of mine. Amazingly, I found that this synopsis was almost near-redundant to me by the end of the film. Serving only as an opening gate to a wider experience.
But after 18 years of its initial release, and finally giving the film a watch – I have discovered that American Beauty is a truly multi-layered, complex and broadly thematic piece of filmmaking. My immediate reaction after viewing the film, was that it was completely uncategorizable. On the surface, it’s a drama. A slice of Americana set in a middle-class suburban town, chronicling the lives of a family appearing to go through the motions of their seemingly contented lives. But as the story begins to unravel, it becomes much more. Addressing themes like fatherhood, racism, masculinisation, sexuality, conformity, materialism and existence. And that’s just to name a few. To decipher this film in every detail and summarize in length would take forever and a day. Quite the feat.
Kevin Spacey’s Lester, the focal point of the film, is wonderfully understated and cynically wry throughout once he begins to repeal the aspects of his life. His job, his marriage, his carnal desires – even his place within his family. Seemingly at a mid-life crisis, but also acknowledging his own mortality. One could argue that this turning point occurs when he first encounters the sexually alluring Angela (Mena Suvari). But another important point of Lester’s story occurs when he first meets Ricky (Wes Bentley). Something completely throwaway, like smoking pot and telling your boss to stick it, is something Lester finds himself in awe of. Away from his somewhat initially alarming interests and demeanour, Ricky is perhaps the unseen guiding hand to Lester, and to a lesser extent his daughter – Jane (Thora Birch).
But Spacey’s performance is not the only stand out of the film. Even as the lead character, Sam Mendes allows Lester’s influence on the film to retract. Allowing the supporting characters in the ensemble to express, and become as integral and vital to the story with their representation of the film’s various motifs. Annette Bening’s depiction of troubled wife, Carolyn, is another amazing contribution as she deftly turns from hard nosed career woman, to snivelling child-like wreck during two key developments. Jane, as played by Birch, is every part the outcast. Drawing a thick line against her conforming parents. Though endearingly doe-eyed, and yearning for more meaning to her life. And Wes Bentley, in my favourite performance of the film, provides the aforementioned ‘guiding hand’, providing insight and clarity to others when necessary.
In respect to Sam Mendes’ direction – for a first time feature, it is an incredible accomplishment. His composition of scenes are subtle and moderate, yet robust through his obvious emphasis on dialogue and character. Some exquisite examples of this, take place during the dinner table sequences with the Burnham family. Where hostilities are juxtaposed with an apparent setting of domestic perfection through static, sparse framing. The film is also beautifully complimented by Thomas Newman’s playful and rhythmic score.
So as you can probably presume, I really enjoyed the hell out of American Beauty. I applaud it mostly for its evasiveness, with an odd and uncanny way of welcoming too. The performances, awash with sardonic wit and profoundness, have a significant relevance even 18 years on – cementing its success at the Academy Awards back in 2000.
As stated before, there is a myriad of themes to consider after watching, but unquestionably – American Beauty is the perfect derision of the American Dream.