What is normal? What is ordinary? What is beautiful? American Beauty proposes that appearances are nearly always deceiving, and there’s always more to see if you just look closer.
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is burnt out. At forty-two years old, he’s fed up with his white collar job, and his pathetic existence as a whole. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), is a plastic real estate saleswoman, ever obsessing about putting forth the “perfect” appearance. Their daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), feels ordinary and unloved. In short, they’re a “normal” American family.
There’s a spark in Lester’s life when he first sees Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). An aspiring teen model, Angela evokes thoughts of lust in Lester that he has not felt for a long, long time. Stirred by these thoughts and fantasies, Lester sets out to improve his life, and reclaim his youth. For the first time in years, he stands up for himself, both at work and at home.
Meanwhile, the Burnhams have new neighbors. Since the house on their left is home to a gay couple (Scott Bakula and Sam Robards), it’s only fitting that a rabidly conservative ex-Marine, Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), moves in on their right. He’s accompanied by his empty shell of a wife, Barbara (Allison Janney), and their creepy, voyeuristic son, Ricky (Wes Bentley). But then, that’s what is just on the surface, and rarely is anyone or anything what they appear to be in American Beauty.
Everyone in the film struggles with the concepts of normality and ordinariness. Some strive for normality, others consider it the bane of existence. Some rebel, others withdraw. Some conceal, others deny. However, only a few truly grasp the fact that it is normal to be abnormal, and that the ordinary is extraordinary.
At one point in American Beauty, a character proclaims, “There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.” However, the film utterly refutes that claim, most notably with the character of Ricky, who’s able to see beauty in the mundane, from dead pigeons to plastic bags. Because we all blindly search for an ideal, we miss the fact that the ideal is all around us.
The film dares you to predict its path, often speeding toward a certain goal, and then veering off at the last moment. There are a few occasions when the film stretches its red herrings almost past the breaking point, but those moments are brief and quickly forgotten.
Kevin Spacey is truly wonderful in the film’s central role, at first utterly weary, but gaining energy and awareness as the film progresses. However, the true virtuoso performance here is delivered by Annette Bening. Steadfastly refusing to show that she’s unhappy or discontent, and always trying to portray the image of success, her character embodies the core messages of the film. Bening’s performance is nothing short of exhilarating.
American Beauty is a bold film debut for both director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball. Ball’s script is both humorous (in an offbeat way), and touchingly poignant. Mendes coaxes superb performances out of the entire ensemble, and combines them with striking visuals which are unexpected this type of film.
American Beauty defies simple genre labels. At one glance, it may appear to be a dark comedy, and at another, a bitter drama. Those unaccustomed to thought-provoking cinema may even attempt to dismiss American Beauty as an “art film”. None of those labels truly do the film justice. American Beauty is a masterwork, a truly extraordinary film about the ordinary.