AlbumsConcert ReviewsFilms

Top 10ResourcesWho We AreFeedback


American Beauty
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Chris Cooper and Allison Janney.
Running Time: 121 Minutes

What you think of the American emotional and social landscape is largely a product of your own sphere of experience. Around us, in every town grand or humble, there are quiet folk living desperate lives, pinned down by their expectations and exiled from a feeling of being truly alive. Some people dream of breaking out of their stifled existence--of realizing real moments of happiness again and rekindling their self-esteem. Maybe you are (or have been) one of those kind of people. If not, chances are you know someone who is. By playing with these very same notions, American Beauty has universally become many critics's pick as a frontrunner for picture of the year.

Kevin Spacey is perfectly cast as Lester Burnham, a self-described "chronic loser" alienated from his wife and daughter, dispensable at work, and "dead already" on the inside. A man in an early mid-life crisis, he is so far at the end of his rope that he's ready to hang himself on it, and he does, slowly but surely, in a series of truly stupid, tragic choices. His wife, Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) is a perverse kind of perfectionist so driven by appearances and material pursuits that she ignores Lester when she's not bemoaning him. Sadly, their daughter Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) is unsurprisingly a burned-out high-schooler who dreams of unnecessary breast implants and has forgotten how to smile.

As if this family wasn't pitiful enough, the new neighbors next door are even worse. The father, Chris Cooper as Colonel Fitts, is your stereotypical homosexual-hating, ultraconservative, abusive, military type, and his wife is a walking zombie who spends her time in glazy-eyed trances. Their son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), is a loner, rebel, drug-dealer and voyeur with a video camera. The only happy couple in the whole neighborhood is the gay pair, Jim and Jim (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards), who gleefully serve as the "welcome wagoners."

Although principally about Lester Burnham's crash-and-burn descent into gratuitous self-realization, American Beauty is also the story of how both of these families intersect in comic, tragic, and sometimes unbelievable ways. There is also the self-proclaimed American Beauty herself, Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), who is Jane Burnham's best friend from the cheerleading team and the object of Lester's unbridled lust. A hearty fancy, she serves as a  catalyst for Lester's journey. After spying her at a basketball game, Lester has a series of stunningly-filmed fantasies that spurn him into an absurd plot to bed the nubile beauty. He quits his job, buys a bright red 1970 Pontiac Firebird, and starts lifting weights in the hopes of becoming more attractive to the comely waif. He does impress her, in fact, but the prize of sexual fulfillment he hoped for turns out to be something he had not expected. This arc of the story leans less toward Lolita than it does Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and one can almost imagine Lester as a grown-up, bitter, and even more burned-out version of Judge Rienhold's character still pining for Phoebe Cates. 

Meanwhile, Ricky Fitts takes a liking to Jane Burnham. He spies on her with his video camera, not because he is some kind of pervert he says, but because he is fascinated with beauty. Not only is that a good pick-up line, boys, but it does the trick, and Jane and Ricky become an item. He and Lester also smoke some excellent weed and talk about the merits of Pink Floyd. Wes Bentley's careful portrayal of Ricky makes him one of the more interesting and better played characters, and the sad secrets of his mysterious behaviors are slowly revealed in one of the movie's more satisfying story threads. 

By degrees sometimes subtle but more often disproportionate, Lester leaves behind every vestige of his former life in a vain attempt to relive his lost youth and feel better about himself. It's never clear whether he really means to reconcile with his wife and daughter, because his feeble attempts to do so only widen the gaps. In the end, he spirals out, even more exiled than he was before, and smugly hanging onto selfish, defeating behaviors. The movie attempts to encourage "looking closer" at things to find the beauty in them, but Lester Burnham's rose-colored glasses deceive him into thinking he's found what he's wanted, when all the time he's losing everything that is truly dear and precious in his life. Whereas comparable archetype Willie Loman dies tragically trying to better his family's situation, Lester Burnham's thoughts are principally and myopically about himself. 

With a story so steeped in self-worship, why does American Beauty win raves by so many moviegoers? We might identify with Lester's frustration, and even in the fleeting joys of casting off constraints, but he has virtually no redeeming qualities and is no poster-boy for those in search of meaning and contentment in life. Perhaps in a tribute to surface and style rather than substance, the answer lies in the surprising display of generally solid acting and directing throughout. Wes Bentley and Kevin Spacey are particularly convincing at times, but overall the acting on everyone's part too often flirts with campy clichés and melodramatic overacting. At best, the acting is wildly uneven, offering both moments of greatness and mediocrity. One of the best actors of our time, Kevin Spacey has played similar roles to this one before. His seemingly effortless turn as Lester Burnham displays both brilliance and banality (How hard, for example, is it to mime masturbation?). Nevertheless, this will likely be the role to earn him another trip to the Oscars.

Many of the film's images are the mundane stuff of standard suburban life, but Mendes and Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall have created a visually stunning film for which they are rightfully commended. The film offers some excellent flourishes: the ubiquitous rose petals exemplifying the pursuits of perfection and desire, the grainy look and handheld feeling of the forbidden video footage, and the exquisite interplay of shadow and light created by the theatrical lighting effects. The fantasy shots are especially impressive. If the movie has one winning point, it is the arresting eye candy.

Yet, amazing film work doesn't keep the story and themes on track. Like Happiness and The Ice Storm and other films of this ilk, American Beauty brilliantly shows us the ugly side of an American family facing decay. But there is very little hope in this story, as if the film creators were more attracted to the idea of pursuing beauty, truth, and a youthful zest for life, than serving up a satisfying conclusion for acquiring such an ideal pursuit. Or perhaps they don't believe it is attainable at all, or merely scoff at those who try? Is this a satire? A melodrama? A comic tragedy? It's never very clear. The movie does end in a tragic, emotionally gripping, gratifying moment of morality and immorality clashing together with a resounding gong. But the wild endorsements of selfish and destructive behavior in the path to this conclusion swamp any real meaning along the way. Before we are faced with the very real consequences of Lester's venal actions, the movie relishes in his recklessness, drug use, sexual licentiousness, and abusive, self-asserting rants. True freedom does not come from casting off rules and self-restraint.

Brilliant, but flawed. Entertaining, but confused. Deceivingly cool, but ultimately empty of true substance. American Beauty is a moral mess, a pretty postcard with a sinister sentiment, a celebrated film deserving of caution before we embrace its impulsive, disastrous spirit for ourselves.

Steven S. Baldwin   10/18/99

"'I'm sorry you can't stay longer,' said Alec sadly. 'There's so much more to see in the Forest of Sight. But I suppose there's a lot to see everywhere, if only you keep your eyes open'"--Phantom Tollbooth

Suburbia has been a favorite target of filmmakers, what with its shallow emphases on appearances and getting ahead. Rarely has it been used as an example of beauty. But American Beauty, a new movie which opened last weekend, sets out not only to skewer the superficiality of the suburbs but to reveal their beauty at the same time. That the movie accomplishes this while also being humorous, moving, and profound is a testimony to its brilliant cast and director.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged man whose marriage (to Carolyn, played by Annette Bening) is falling apart, whose teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch, Alaska) can't stand to be around him, and whose job is being downsized by an "efficiency expert." As he says in a great early voiceover, "In a way, I'm dead already." But he's not going to be dead for long.

Dragged along to his daughter's basketball game (she's a cheerleader), he meets Angela (Mena Suvari, American Pie), who's both Jane's best friend and a complete knockout. Spurred on by her apparent interest in him, Lester takes control of his life, though not in the way self-help books suggest. He starts smoking pot, yelling back at his wife, and quitting his job. And he begins working out, in the hope of bedding this nubile bombshell.

Other characters in this dark comedy include Ricky (Wes Bentley), a strangely confident teen who's a drug dealer and voyeur, but also the most thoughtful and sensitive character in the movie; Rick's dad (Chris Cooper), a hard-nosed former Marine who can't see his son's double life; and a local real estate agent who symbolizes the superficiality of the neighborhood.

To put it simply, the acting in American Beauty is fantastic, with the teen actors, usually a drawback in most films, giving particularly strong performances. While my friend Garth thought their characters were stereotypical, I found them to be compelling. When Jane looks for her parents in the stands at a basketball game, she has the perfect combination of hopefulness that they're interested in her and resentment that they're too interested. And Birch and Bentley are particularly good as their strange romance grows into something beautiful if not altogether admirable. Even Suvari's character, as the gorgeous if contemptible blonde, develops as the movie progresses.

But the real star is Kevin Spacey. What can you say about an actor who's consistently spectacular? From Unusual Suspects to L.A. Confidential to Hurly Burly, he has taken each role and made it his own. American Beauty is no different. Completely believable as a hollow, transparent husband and worker, he's also persuasive as a man who storms out of his mid-life crisis with verve and confidence. But the great, sometimes unnoticed, strength of Spacey's craft is that he supports his co-stars rather than overshadowing them. During his conversations with his daughter at the dinner table and kitchen sink, I sometimes forgot Spacey's character was even there, but afterwards his performance is what I couldn't forget.

As good as the acting is, though, the best part of American Beauty is director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall's complete and stunning control of the camera. A movie about beauty must convey that on the screen, and Mendes and Hall accomplish this in so many ways. If I were to list all of the memorable shots in American Beauty--a funeral procession through a bower of trees, a character merging with the shadows, a naked girl in a bed of rose petals, and on and on--I'd run out of space without mentioning anything else in the film. But even more impressive is how those images reflect on and rhyme with each other.

A distinct color of red shows up in a painted brick wall, a front door, and the rose petals--each one glorious on its own but, taken together, they comment on the nature of beauty and our ability or inability to see it. Why does a shade of red appear cold in one context but luminous in another? What do I, as a viewer of beauty, notice and ignore? What would God have me dwell on?

Two teenage girls, each gorgeous but in very different ways, both perform for and retreat from the camera's gaze. This theme of performing (every character "acts" in their day-to-day life), which the script shows is central to the suburban life, is seamlessly coupled with the theme of voyeurism, raising the questions of why we act the way we do and what do we hope others will notice. And how does beauty affect that tension of performing and seeing? Add in how we as the audience are implicated in these acts of voyeurism, and you have a very complicated and thought-provoking film.

Mendes and Hall don't just throw images at the audience, though. They manipulate space in profound ways. Ever since Citizen Kane's famous breakfast table scenes, directors have utilized empty space as a metaphor for separation; but I can't remember a movie that accomplished this more powerfully than American Beauty.  Early on, there's a great widescreen shot of Annette Bening, completely alone with just wall blinds behind her; later there are numerous shots of a long dinner table or couches that are both crowded and yet very empty.

The film also uses framing devices to create closed, appropriately claustrophobic, scenes: a conversation in which Jane is crowded out by a shot of Rick's back, a confrontation between Rick and his dad where Chris Cooper completely fills the screen, a moment with Angela and Jane where they lie, in the frame, almost on top of each other. American Beauty tells its story not just with words and actors but with camerawork and lighting.

What is beautiful? And is that important to the Christian life? The second question sounds easier to answer than the first, but American Beauty has challenged me to think about this world in ways that I hadn't considered before.

The French dramatist Jean Anouilh once said that beauty is one of the few things that doesn't lead to doubt in God. The psalmists and other Biblical lyric writers command us over and over to gaze upon God's handiwork and praise him for it. But Christians so often focus on moral/utilitarian ideals and forget that God has called us to appreciate and care for his

And American Beauty, more than any movie I can think of, showed me how beautiful the world is and, just as importantly, how important it is to notice. It showed me that the simplest thing like a bag blowing in the wind can provoke praise and honor. It showed me that if I pay attention I can catch the rhymes of God throughout his world, even in places that seem ugly and degraded. And it showed me that, though my imagination and resources are limited, I too can create something beautiful.

Some have castigated the movie for its teenage nudity. For me, though, I thought those brief moments are some of the most profound in the film. They reminded me of how vulnerable God has made us but also how beautiful his likeness is. It underscored how voyeuristic an audience we've become and how that's twisted genuine beauty into something awful. Christians who think a naked woman is inherently sinful are just the flip side of the pornographer-calling God's marvelous creation a work of the devil. American Beauty reminded me that that's not so.

And even if these ideas/ideals don't move you the way they moved me, I hope that you can appreciate how complex the movie is and how artful it is in examining these profound truths. You may not agree with everything it says (I don't either), but I can't think of a film that's so challenged me to look at God's creation and recognize both its goodness and fallenness.

I could go on and on about the joys of American Beauty, but I'll close by addressing a point some of the movie's detractors have made. My friend Garth, among others, argues that the movie is a simplistic justification for selfish behavior. But I think that misses the point. While Lester's growing confidence and assertive behavior are shockingly funny at times (his straightforward blackmail of a co-worker will put a smile on the face of middle managers everywhere), the movie raises the necessary question: would I want to live with somebody like this? And the answer, which Lester realizes in the gloriously beautiful conclusion, is no. As pretty as the world may be, and as satisfying as selfishness is for a time, nothing can replace the intimacy of personal relationships. In the movie's final scene, Angela meaningfully asks him, "How are you?" His response--"It's been a long time since anyone asked me"--is one of the most jolting and powerful moments in this very impressive and powerful film.

American Beauty isn't a perfect movie. Annette Bening's character is over-the-top and poorly written, the heavy emphasis on drug use gets old quickly, and the movie's humor doesn't always mesh with its more serious introspective side. But American Beauty's overwhelming strengths are so spectacular I plan on seeing it many times before its inevitable Oscar nominations. Don't miss it.

J. Robert Parks 10/27/99



Copyright © 1996-2000 The Phantom Tollbooth