Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a forty something advertising salesman who, on the outside, has a seemingly perfect life: a wife, a daughter, a beautiful home. However, inside he is unsatisfied with his job, his family, and his boring life; you could say he is having a midlife crisis. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), a materialistic and uncaring woman, obsessed with everything being perfect and his daughter Jane (Thora Birch), an angry and insecure teenager who finds him too embarrassing to live, are both too wrapped up in their own lives to notice him. He ultimately feels that his life is pretty pointless.
However, after attending a basketball game at Jane’s high school, where she is cheerleading, he meets her friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), also a cheerleader and a self-absorbed girl who believes there is nothing worse than being ordinary. Lester becomes immediately infatuated with her, and when she begins to flirt with him back, he decides he is going to make some changes in his life. He is about to be fired from his job, which he has been at for fourteen years, however somehow manages to blackmail his boss out of $30,000 and sets out to find a new job, one with the least responsibility possible.
Meanwhile, Carolyn, unhappy in her loveless marriage, begins an affair with her real estate rival Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) and Jane falls in love with Ricky Fitz (Wes Bentley), an unusual boy who loves filming everything he sees as beautiful, including Jane, much to the distaste of Angela who believes he is a ‘psycho boy’. Ricky is also the son of the Burnham’s unfriendly new neighbours, an aggressive and overly strict ex marine father (Chris Cooper) and a speechless mother (Allison Janney).
Lester’s efforts however, to regain and fulfil a freer and more youthful life are defeated as, in a dramatic and unexpected twist near the end of the film, it would seem that his ultimate freedom has come at the ultimate price.
This film has an acclaimed cast and as the lead, Spacey gives a flawless performance. I couldn’t think of a better actor to play the enigmatic Lester Burnham and Mena Suvari plays well the part of a self-obsessed although secretly insecure teenager.
American Beauty is filled with irony throughout, set on an idyllic street in America, what goes on behind the doors of the Burnham’s house, and many others, is entirely different from what would be perceived from an outside glance. The large white house with the blood red door and the matching red rose bushes in their garden, are down to Carolyn’s obsessive compulsions for perfection. And the constant, although surreal appearance of the rose petals throughout the film are a reminder of the ‘fake’ life being lead by what seems like all of the characters.
I think the best scene of the film is when Ricky shows Jane, ‘the most beautiful thing he has ever filmed’, a plain white plastic bag, floating around, undisturbed in a whirlwind of autumn leaves. If you saw this same scene yourself you may not think anything of it, however, the fact that Ricky can see beauty in the most unobvious of situations is amazing. The music in the background, and the way that the scene is shown through the filmings of a boys documentational life is brilliant.
Overall I believe American Beauty is a cleverly written, acted and directed film. As well as being a funny, moving and truly fascinating incite into the lives of what could be many families in suburban America.