When life throws you lemons (midlife crisis), make lemonade (banging your daughter’s best friend). Academy Award winners Kevin Spacey, Chris Cooper and Academy Award nominee Annette Bening star in American Beauty.
Cast of Characters:
Lester Burnham – Kevin Spacey
Carolyn Burnham – Annette Bening
Jane Burnham – Thora Birch
Barbara Fitts – Allison Janney
Buddy Kane – Peter Gallagher
Angela Hayes – Mena Suvari
Ricky Fitts – Wes Bentley
Col. Frank Fitts – Chris Cooper
Director – Sam Mendes
Screenplay – Alan Ball
Producer – Bruce Cohen & Dan Jinks
Rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content
Meet Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). Lester’s just your average, everyday ordinary suburbanite. He’s got a comfy job in advertising; his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is madly in love with him; and his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) adores the heck out of him.
Too bad none of it is true.
Actually, at his job, he’s nothing more than an expendable pawn; he and his shrill, perfectionist wife’s marriage has essentially been reduced to a loveless, burdensome contractual obligation; and he might as well be invisible when it comes to his daughter. Worst of all, as he says at the beginning, he’ll be dead in a year.
Then again, judging by his current life situation, “In a way, I’m dead already.”
All that changes, though, the very instant he meets his daughter’s friend, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari). Hello, midlife crisis! Time to work on that six-pack!
In the mid-’90s, after several years of writing for sitcoms Grace Under Fire and Cybill, screenwriter Alan Ball wanted to branch out into the film industry, and pitched three ideas to his agent – two conventional rom-coms and the eventual five-time Oscar winner American Beauty. Originally conceived as a play in the early ’90s, Ball’s scathing takedown of middle class suburbia was in no way an easy concept for the studio’s to market, but after Steven Spielberg read the script, DreamWorks jumped at the chance to develop the film.
American Beauty is a powerful collision of contrasts. It’s darkly humorous, yet sad and bleak; shocking and disturbing, yet stunningly poignant and beautiful. The music ranges from Thomas Newman’s ethereal score to director Sam Mendes hitting us with the counter-culture sucker punch “American Woman” by The Guess Who. Themes of repression, marital dysfunction, sexuality, teen angst, insecurities, unfulfilled dreams and infidelity permeate the film like poison, yet such tumult is exquisitely captured in tranquil shot compositions by cinematographer Conrad Hall.
Hall’s Oscar-winning work, which complements Mendes and Ball’s vision beautifully, seems to unfortunately get overshadowed by the fantastic performances and Ball’s razor-sharp dialogue. In a way, it’s understandably so. Kevin Spacey’s performance alone is worth the watch. However, there are little nuances in Hall’s work that can be found with each additional watch that add to the film’s greatness (Burnham’s reflection in his monitor resembling a jail cell to evoke his metaphorical imprisonment is a nice touch). Take notice of how certain scenes are shot. They’re nearly identical, as if to highlight the film’s central theme of suburban monotony, but tiny differences are thrown in to heighten the growing unease in both the story and characters. It’s superb work that deserves more credit than it seems to get.
Initially, DreamWorks intended on hiring an A-list director, among them Mike Nichols and Robert Zemeckis (Spielberg, reportedly, admitted later on that he wishes he could’ve directed this film), a choice Ball wasn’t all that keen on as he believed a big name filmmaker would lead to a bigger budget and in turn more studio control over the project. Eventually, first time feature film director Sam Mendes, then a theater director, was brought on to direct.
Let’s put Mendes’s accomplishment into perspective. Blending the dark humor and heavy subject matter would’ve been quite a task for an experienced filmmaker. This was Mendes’s debut, and he hits a grand slam as he handles a delicate balancing act between biting satire and profound drama with a deft touch. For a film that can switch on a dime from humor in the story’s absurdity to sorrow over the unraveling of relationships turned sour, the right tone is absolutely essential and Mendes ably moves from one extreme to the other without missing a beat. Key scenarios may be exaggerated for satirical effect, but the issues at their core are ones we can relate to. We may not relate entirely to the ordeals of the Burnham family or the Fitts family – well, at least I’m hoping most of us don’t – but everyone can identify with some form of human failure, be it through marriage, parenting, work or self.
What does pique my curiosity is just how dark Ball’s original screenplay was. Reportedly, Mendes toned down much of Ball’s cynicism during the editing process, which speaks volumes considering that the film is still pretty cynical.
The cast consists of a pitch-perfect mix of veteran and young talent that walk a fine line between parody and realism. As the Burnhams’ abusive, militaristic neighbor, Chris Cooper comes the closest to bordering on caricature without completely crossing that line, and Cooper’s the type of talent that knows how far to go without doing so. Peter Gallagher is smarmy, smug perfection as the local hotshot real estate king, whose sex scene opposite Annette Bening might be one of the funniest there is (Yes, your majesty!!). Young stars Thora Birch and Wes Bentley turn in terrific understated performances, the latter revealing more layers to his character than the videotaping creeper he appears to be at first.
Bening, who could’ve nabbed her first Best Actress win if it wasn’t for Hilary Swank and Boys Don’t Cry raining on her parade, goes toe to toe against Kevin Spacey War of the Roses style and delivers incredible work that is every bit her co-stars equal. Her career-driven, success obsessed, shrill, cold-hearted bitch attitude is like nails on a chalk board to Lester’s ears, and you’ll wanna smack Lawrence Welk loving harpy as much as he does. Yet, and this is the mark of a great performance in a great film, by the end of the movie, your heart will break for her.
Spacey was always Mendes’s first choice for the role of Lester, but DreamWorks execs weren’t entirely enthused about his casting choice and preferred either Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner or John Travolta instead. While all three have done standout work in other films, their casting could’ve turned American Beauty into a completely different film and not in the good way either. Spacey turns out to be the best of both worlds for Mendes and DreamWorks here. With a stellar pre-American Beauty resume that includes Glengarry Glen Ross, Seven, L.A. Confidential and an Oscar-winning turn in The Usual Suspects, Spacey brings the A-list level talent that would eventually win over the DreamWorks heads, but his onscreen presence doesn’t scream “A-lister”, despite his award-level body of work, which allows him to easily slip into his roles, a major concern Mendes’s had in casting a high-profile celebrity that might’ve weighed the film down.
Simply put, Spacey rocks it from beginning to end and owns every scene in a deadpan performance that is by far his career best, a very difficult feat considering the other outstanding performances he’s given throughout his career (if you have not seen the vastly underrated Glengarry Glenn Ross, please do so, and watch him easily hold his own against heavy hitters like Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin).
Lester isn’t easy to like (to be fair, hardly anyone else in the film is either). His marriage is dead, and he bears just as much blame for that as his wife. He’s distant from his daughter, hates his thankless job and indiscreetly flirts with his daughter’s best friend. If a morning jerk-off in the shower being the highlight of his day doesn’t clue you in to how much of a loser he is, then I don’t know what else will. But Spacey injects Lester with a confidence that shows itself more and more as the film progresses (jaded husbands around the world will find great pleasure in the moment he bluntly explains to his wife how unwise it’d be for her to divorce him). Are some of his choices reckless? Yes, but he knows running loose and wild and he’s prepared to lie in the bed he’s making. As he sees it, it’s better to burn out than fade away, and to be honest, when you see how dreadful he’s had it beforehand, it’s hard to blame him.
“Man, you are one twisted fuck.”
“Nope… I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.”
Skewering suburbia with disturbingly honest wit, American Beauty marked the beginning of a great film career for director Sam Mendes and cemented two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey’s place as one of the greatest actors of his generation. It’s uncompromising take on American society pulls no punches and spares no one, but under all of the film’s acid-tongued, dark humor, there’s something oddly poignant and meaningful to be found. You may not notice it the first time, but as the film’s tagline instructs you, “… look closer.”