In “American Beauty,” suburbanite Lester Burnham (brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey) is suffering a midlife crisis. He’s a push-over — by his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch); by his unappreciative boss; by life in general.
Furthermore, there’s no joy or love (or sex) in his relationship with his wife, and he finds himself fantasizing about Jane’s trampy school friend Angie (Mena Suvari).
As luck would have it, he finds a new lease on life from, of all people, Jane’s next-door-neighbor boyfriend Ricky (Wes Bentley), a quiet, brooding fellow who videotapes life and finds beauty in everything. He also sells pot, which contributes a lot toward Lester’s new, non-passive outlook.
This is an extraordinary film, managing to be both dreary and optimistic simultaneously. Lester’s midlife crisis might be more accurately termed an end-of-life crisis: He tells us in the opening narration that he’ll be dead within a year; we understand this to mean by the end of the movie.
His life is a wreck, to be sure, and his attempts to salvage it are through questionable means and with varying results. Yet, as with all the great daydreaming milquetoast protagonists, from Willy Loman to Walter Mitty, there is some amount of hope by the end — even if that hope seems shattered by the final scene and its implications.
Lester is the focus, of course, but the characters who surround him are equally fascinating. His wife is driven by the desire for money and success and commits adultery partly to get it, and partly because she just wants sex and has no interest in her husband anymore. Jane’s boyfriend’s father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), always introduces himself by mentioning his rank in the Marines and is a homophobic, abusive, border-line Nazi of a father. His wife sits and stares into space, having shut off the constant explosions erupting between the Colonel and their son.
Not one of these characters is good, nor do any of their real selves match their facades, but several are still sympathetic and even lovable. Most notably, Ricky is a beautiful character, full of grace and love for all the world — yet he’s also a drug-dealer.
So what’s it all mean? Lester tells us in the film’s final narration that he knows we won’t understand what he’s getting at — but that we will someday.
And that’s pretty accurate. “American Beauty” is compelling to watch, full of black humor, evocative imagery and wrenching sadness. It creates more of a mood than an actual theme or message, though even that mood is difficult to describe. You have to see it to understand that even by seeing it, you may not understand it. All you know is, you’ve just watched a movie you couldn’t take your eyes off of for a second.
A (; )
In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.